Photograph by Matthew McAndrew, taken at Oran Mor 25/11/2012
Dan Mangan is a great Canadian songwriter with a huge singing voice and a complex musical language that goes beyond the usual singer songwriter style. The best of his songs create whole worlds around a single personal point of view. Over the years he’s built himself a sonically awesome, improvisatory band, all musicians in their own right, with bands of their very own.
Tonight at the Scala Dan complains about the cold, but pretty soon he and the roaring, jangling, thrashing animal that is his band has us all warmed up, the ground prepared more quietly by his Loudon Wainwright like Arts and Crafts labelmate Jason Collett.
Featuring mainly songs from this Year’s O Fortune – an album of complex arrangements and rhythms that are edgily translated onto the stage – it becomes clear this is a band gig rather than a band backing Dan gig. ‘About as Helpful as You Can Be..’, ‘Post War Blues’ and the wonderfully syncopated ‘Leaves Trees Forests’ are magnificent, full throated and full throttled, with some brilliant extended improvisations led by the muscular guitar of Gordon Grdina.
It’s only when things slow down for ‘Basket’ that you realise the other dimension of Mangan’s work and the strength of Mangan’s voice. The song itself is his finest – a song about growing old that is like a Jonathan Franzen blockbuster in 3 minutes. Beautifully measured and delicately toned – you hear Mangan’s voice to the full as if for the first time.
The musical essence of the evening is illustrated in the dizzily daft ‘Robots’ – a song that could be done in a throwaway singalong version, but not here. It begins taut and almost tense in the restraint of its musical accompaniment, with Mangan twinkling and teasing and inviting us into his alternative robot world. Then towards the end of the song the brilliant beast of the band is unleashed – exuberantly devouring every inch of sonic space in the song.
‘Jeopardy’ finds his more reflective and contrasting sound again and ends the concert. Then Mangan takes a chair into the audience for ‘So Much For Everyone’ , a song about selfishness that’s never mawkish even as his dog dies while he’s on the road (you have to hear it to know that it works – I defy you not to cry). A more reflective Dan, whose songwriting genius lies behind everything that’s special about tonight, brings a beautifully modulated evening of great songs, dark sounds whilst the audience bring worthy chorus lines and the occasional flicker of a lighter.