Live Review: Manchester Orchestra at Union Chapel, 02/10/23

Andy Hull and Robert McDowell gather their congregation to record an emotional new live album and film

First emerging from the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia in 2005, Manchester Orchestra have long been defined by their emotion. 

Since their 2006 debut, I’m Like A Virgin Losing A Child, frontman Andy Hull’s ability to translate his personal experiences into candid stories of faith, redemption, grief and trauma has guided the four-piece since. Oozing out into the emo sensibilities of their hook-laden brand of alt-rock, the band’s ever-evolving penchant for emotionally dense songwriting and cinematic soundscapes blossomed on their 2023 mini album, The Valley Of Vision.

Building upon the epic, cinematic notes of 2021’s The Million Masks Of God, it’s easy to see how The Valley Of Vision’s solemn, ruminative journey through resilience, rebirth, and redemption has led Manchester Orchestra to a sold-out three-night residency at London’s Union Chapel.

A Congregational church in the heart of Islington, the stained-glass windows and gothic ambience play host to a celebration dubbed ‘An Evening with Manchester Orchestra’ – a stripped-back set featuring Hull and guitarist Robert McDowell. Softly lit by lights at the back of the stage and the occasional flash of lightning through the glass behind them, pensive ‘I Know How To Speak’ opens affairs, with Hull’s haunting, distinctly vulnerable vocals stunning the crowd into silence.

It’s a silence so potent that as the song concludes its six-minute run time, Hull laughs at the sound of hesitantly opened cans – a series of pops echoing through the building from those waiting until the track’s end – sparking a running joke spanning the remainder of the night.

With McDowell alternating between guitar and keys, ‘The Maze’ and ‘Deer’ form early highlights, with the latter eliciting a rare shout from the polite crowd as Hull sings, “Dear everybody that has paid to see my band // It’s still confusing, we’ll never understand”. 2006 track ‘I Can Barely Breathe’ brings one of the night’s most poignant vocal performances, shortly before Hull reveals to the room that tonight’s show is being recorded for the purpose of a live album and film.

Smiles, cheers, and gentle fist pumps confirm the audience’s relief that the night’s happenings are being captured as the duo roll into a rendition of 2023 track ‘The Way’, their impressive vocal melodies radiating through the room. Fan favourites ‘Simple Math’ and ‘I Can Feel A Hot One’ see Hull at his most emotionally tender, before paying a poignant tribute to late Frightened Rabbit vocalist Scott Hutchison with a cover of the band’s 2008 track ‘My Backwards Walk’.

Asking for a moment to be vulnerable with those seated in the pews, Hull reflects, “This is a very special moment for us. We can feel the energy that I think you’re feeling too.”

Rounding out their main set with the ruminative ‘Bed Head’ before an encore of deeply affecting 2017 track ‘The Silence’, the song’s moving outro concludes with a standing ovation. As the lights come up around the stunning Victorian church and feet shuffle back onto the London streets, the sea of awe-struck faces confirms one thing: there may not be many bands made for rooms as grandiose as this – but Manchester Orchestra are certainly one of them.

Manchester Orchestra continue their residency at Union Chapel on 3 October, before playing Manchester Academy 2 on 5 October. Find tickets here

Photo credit: James du Plessis