Andrew McMahon stands perched over his piano shifting between two microphones; one hanging off the piano and the other one to his left because he can't sit still. He's constantly hopping up from his piano stool as he sings his resilient songs. McMahon has been performing in Chicago for seventeen years, but no performance has ever hit as many emotional nerves as his recent show at the Riviera Theatre. He began his career with the pop-punk band Something Corporate before going solo under the name of Jack's Mannequin and eventually settling on Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness in 2014. For more than two-hours McMahon and his band treated the Chicago crowd to an intensely personal show where family was a recurring theme as he took the audience through a journey of not just his songbook but his life as well.
The band took to the stage dressed in flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts on a stage decorated like a beach party which was a welcome sight to many in the crowd who had endured a brutal winter. The band began to play, but Andrew McMahon and his piano was nowhere to be seen despite being heard when suddenly a crisscrossed gate opened finding McMahon wheeling his piano to center stage. By opening the show with "Everything Must Go" McMahon immediately set the tone for the evening signaling to the crowd that nothing was safe. The song serves as the closer on his most recent album, Upside Down Flowers, and the pensive epic gently builds into a wailing crescendo of emotion. Flowers finds McMahon at his most reflective and vulnerable and "Everything Must Go" is the culmination of a brilliantly understated record of awareness as it wrestles with the ghosts of the past. Opening the show with it wasn't just bold, it was akin to the Beatles opening a concert with the Abbey Road medley or Bruce Springsteen cueing up "Jungleland" for the opener. The set was a tender and consolidated journey of the last two decades from a teenager in a rock band to a father and ever-evolving musician who casts a spell over his audience weaving tales of a life well lived and shining a light on the beauty at our fingertips that we all too often turn a blind eye to.
The entire show unfolded like a picture book of your life through song. The crowd stood in rapt attention as McMahon ripped through "High Dive" and its sprightly arrangement before seguing into the first Jack's Mannequin song of the night, "The Mixed Tape" which ignited the crowd. McMahon fans hold Everything in Transit in high regard and consider it a masterpiece. The crowd took the song away from McMahon, who basked in their glow as they sung every word shaking the foundation of the building in the process. Aside from the beach themed stage, the show had had other production elements including a giant blue drape that covered the crowd on the floor on "Island Radio" as McMahon walked through the crowd to the soundboard whereas on "Paper Rain" he donned sunglasses and a cape crawling to the top of the stage.
Both Something Corporate and Jack's Mannequin fans had plenty to cheer for with key songs sprinkled throughout the set. On "Holiday from Real" he encouraged the crowd to "embrace the freak inside of you" before he unleashed his inner rock star on "Punk Rock Princess". The crowd drowned out the band on "Dark Blue" and the encore featured "MFEO Pt 1 - Made for Each Other / Pt 2 - You Can Breathe" which found McMahon being carried (via a giant plastic flower) to an opera box where he ventured up to go eye-to-eye with the fans in the balcony. Additional surprises included a sing-a-long cover of Cher's "Believe" that was transformed into a piano ballad while on "Fire Escape"; McMahon played the piano and belted the song out like his life depended on it. The arc of the show led up to this moment where he didn't leave anything behind.
His latest album Upside Down Flowers is his most self-assured, reflective and illuminating. With the assistance of producer Butch Walker, McMahon has released his most realized collection of songs. What makes the music and performances so refreshing is they are endearing and constantly pull at the audience's heart strings, but they're never manipulative. He's an earnest performer never afraid to tip his hat to those who lit a path for him. The pairing "Teenage Rockstars" from Flowers and Something Corporate's "I Woke Up in a Car" was inspired since the former was a lovely rumination of his time with the band. His current tour and album feel like a family reunion where you reminisce, share your appreciation and love for one another and have discussions about tackling the path forward. The songs from Upside Down Flowers have a clear sense of cumulative nostalgia in the best way imaginable where McMahon takes stock of the people and places that have brought him to this specific moment in time.
McMahon's awareness of the past and the importance it had on his life is refreshing on Flowers where his expressive allegories are fused with melodic energy that seeps into your bones. We encounter people in our life who write specific chapters that serve as a foundational factor in our story, and McMahon is coming to terms with these relationships on Upside Down Flowers. "House in the Trees" is a magnificent and philosophical ballad about drifting relationships and unspoken gratitude. He sings fondly about a childhood friend who kept him company during family issues and Aaron, who took care of the business when McMahon had a health scare in 2005 ("I never got to thank him / But I wrote it in a letter / I'm sure I'll send it someday"). The melancholy rips at your heart in the most unexpected ways because it's tender and familiar; we all have the best intentions in our youth to be bonded by blood with those friends, but our lives splinter off into different directions. This is McMahon's way of acknowledging those people we may not speak to or see, but whom we will always share an unbroken bond with.
Before "Monday Flowers", he spoke to the crowd about being able to open up for Billy Joel in 2018. His parents gave him Joel's Greatest Hits Volume I & II compilation when he was younger and he spoke about how it sent him on the path leading to where he is today. You can hear Billy Joel, Elton John and Leon Russell in the DNA of his discography. I spent my whole life listening to Billy Joel and can hang my hat on so many memories where his music was the soundtrack to my soul, but his concerts never made me feel like McMahon's current concert tour which is powered by stories that serve as a soundtrack for a generation of fans who view his lyrics like scripture.
The evening's most gut wrenching moment occurred early in the show during "Ohio", a song he wrote about the journey his family took to California from Ohio. He spoke about the courage of his mother to take him and his sister out of a bad situation to a place where the promise of a better life waited. "Ohio" is McMahon's magnum opus and his entry in the great American songbook; the minutiae sprinkled throughout the song from the time they left, to his sister's tears and her "counting crows" on their road trip to a place where they believed "everything's going to be better". The visceral images will burn into your soul even if you've lived in the same house your entire life. Moving to improve your situation is an American tradition and throughout the history of this country people have used the West, literally and metaphorically, as a promised land where they hoped to build a new life. The swelling sentiments fly by like wheels on the road, capturing a pivotal moment in his life where his mother's courage allowed them a chance at new dreams. "Ohio" is an inspiring modern pop-psalm of hope.
There's so much beneath the surface of Andrew McMahon's music, as he trudges through the gritty gore of life while finding new and illuminating dimensions of beauty. There's no better example of this than "Cecilia and the Satellite" which he wrote for the daughter he never thought he would have. Upon completing the first Jack's Mannequin album in 2005 he had a unexpected cancer diagnosis and even though he was able to beat it, he was conscious about those who do not, which led to him starting the Dear Jack Foundation which helps adolescents and young adults diagnosed with cancer to improve their quality of life. As he hit the chords on "Cecilia", his hands played with purpose as the groundswells of applause were accentuated by the overwhelming emotion in the room. Whatever fears the audience walked in with, they dissipated at the sound of one of the greatest modern hymns as the tenderness flowed off the stage and through the crowd. If you are fortunate enough to see Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness in 2019, you will hear pop-punk gospels that will center you, make you whole and fuel you with faith.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness: Fear, Faith and Reflection
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