Friday, October 17, 2014

Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness concert review: Los Angeles

My review originally appeared at 

When musicians perform songs from their former bands live, the results can come across awkwardly if not done carefully.

Yet on Wednesday night at the Fonda Theatre, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness handled their leader’s new and old material seamlessly.  

“It’s crazy weaving all these threads of my life together,” said the singer/pianist, onstage in Hollywood.

He first gained attention during the early 2000s as the teenage front man for popular Dana Point alt-rock band Something Corporate. A little over a decade later came the acclaimed, adult alternative pop-leaning Jack’s Mannequin, which ended two years ago.

McMahon’s latest music endeavor involved various career changes, so “in the wilderness” was added to the new moniker. He penned the songs in a Topanga Canyon shack. They were fleshed out in the Echo Park studio of co-producer/collaborator Mike Viola (who worked on the latest releases by Ryan Adams, Jenny Lewis and Matt Nathanson).

Besides a heightened emphasis on atmospheric keyboards, piano and electronic programming (think: The Postal Service and Keane), McMahon’s trademark pop melodies are peppered throughout the excellent self-titled debut album, which arrived this week.

Expansive first single “Cecilia and the Satellite” (inspired by the birth of McMahon’s infant daughter) is currently receiving airplay on KROQ FM. The autobiographical lyric finds McMahon singing how he’s “been around the world with a punk rock band/I’ve seen London and I’ve played Japan.”

Inside the lobby before the Hollywood show, an organization signed up potential bone marrow donors – something of vital importance to McMahon since a transplant helped save his life while battling leukemia. 

Having spent much of the summer opening for Vanguard Records label mate Nathanson and Gavin DeGraw, the band just started a headlining U.S. tour. It winds up Thanksgiving weekend back home here in OC, where McMahon resides with his family again after an extended period living in LA.

A large group of enthusiastic young fans packed the area in front of the Fonda stage and often sang along loudly to the older tunes. Further back, other concertgoers were annoyingly chatty – even during the quiet numbers (something you’d expect at House of Blues).

Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – comprised of former Jack’s Mannequin drummer Jay McMillan and bassist Mikey Wagner (pictured left), plus keyboardist Zac Clark - kicked off their enticing 90-minute set with a strident “Canyon Moon.”

Featuring a soulful chorus live, the first of eight selections performed from the new album was co-written by pop/rock hit maker Sam Hollander and Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin and revolves around a girl trying to escape LA.

The frantic Jack’s Mannequin song “Dark Blue” was slightly revamped with a piercing synth line, while Something Corporate rarity “Watch the Sky” was a pleasant surprise. Before noting, “this was written right around the corner in Echo Park,” McMahon flubbed the lyrics to airy new one, “High Dive” and joked about it.

Gregarious as always and never still at the piano (he briefly jumped into the crowd amid “All Our Lives”), the singer explained the background to several songs. Among the past catalog, “The Resolution” was an early standout. Mannequin selections like “Bruised” and “Crashin’” worked well with tweaked arrangements. SoCo’s “Ruthless” benefitted from McMahon’s more mature sonorous vocals. 

Alone at the piano, his versions of “Holiday From Real” had added gravitas, “Rainy Girl” was quietly effective and the dramatic “Cavanaugh Park” (where the band joined in) was simply stunning.   

Later, “I Woke Up in a Car” sounded quite different minus the original electric guitar, but the synth and brief acapella bit cast it in a fresh new light. McMahon worked both sides of the stage for “Synesthesia.” 

For the encores, the new “Maps for the Getaway” contained a compelling Peter Gabriel vibe, the poppy “La La Lie” saw McMahon impressively handle harmonica and piano (!), and “Cecilia and the Satellite” ended the evening on a kaleidoscopic high. 

Setlist: Canyon Moon/Dark Blue/Watch the Sky/High Dive/Amy, I/The Resolution/Driving Through a Dream/Bruised/Crashin’/Ruthless/All Our Lives/Holiday From Real/Rainy Girl/Cavanaugh Park/Halls/I Woke Up in a Car/Synesthesia

Encore: Maps for the Getaway/La La Lie/Cecilia and the Satellite

All photos by Armando Brown
The band does a hometown show on Nov. 29 at the Observatory in Santa Ana. Tickets are $30. For more information:,

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