By the time Dave reached the piano in Holmdel, New Jersey, during the June 10th performance of "Mercy," the older man with the grey goatee sitting in the rented lawn chair in front of me had already played two turns of "Words With Friends" on his phone. In fact, I was surrounded by people sitting on blankets texting and checking Facebook. People were audibly sighing and talking about what song they wanted to hear instead of "Mercy."
People don't like "Mercy." Read the reviews. Just this year's tour reviews alone have already called the song "trash" (from 5/13), "possibly the worst song Dave ever wrote" (from 5/19), a "lowlight" that can "go away forever" (a combination of reviews from from 6/6), and a "buzzkill" (review from Holmdel). Check out AntsMarching.org's show flow where "Mercy" is almost always listed as one of the low points of shows. Listen to the recordings-- you will sometimes here a collective sigh of disapproval at the first guitar lick of the song. People do not want to hear this song at a show.
...and I don't know why.
During the encore break, I asked the grey goateed man in front of me why he hated the song. His response was that "Mercy" was "too long, too slow, and too repetitive." And that sounded fair to me-- until I thought about "Cortez The Killer." Dave and the boys played "Cortez" three songs after "Mercy," and the crowd (particularly grey-beard) loved it. "Cortez" is much longer (over 11 minutes longer at Wednesday's show), much slower (around 61 beats-per-minute, compared to "Mercy" at 97 BPM), and much more repetitive (the entire song contains only three chords - like pretty much every Neil Young song). So what gives? Why the hate for "Mercy"?
NOTE: At this point, I should clarify: I do not think "Mercy" is better than "Cortez"-- I'm not a lunatic.
Let me be fair about this; I understand some of the hate. I recognize that people can't dance to the song. I recognize that not everyone wants to hear a 6 minute piano-led jam that contains no lyrics and no solos. I'll even recognize that the lyrics are pretty rough ("Crime won't save or feed a hungry child"-- really, Dave? I'm pretty confident that "feeding my hungry kids" is pretty high on the list of reasons for crime, just above "I thought I could get away with it").
But, is "Mercy" really so bad? Is it really a "buzzkill"? Its lyrics are certainly no more preachy than "Seek Up" or "Dive In." And its lyrics are certainly more rooted in our present lives than "Cortez" (a song about the 16th century invasion of the Aztec Empire by the Spanish that isn't even factual).
And, maybe that six-minutes piano coda to "Mercy" is worth a re-listen. Go. Pull up a good version of the song. YouTube has literally dozens of them. I'll wait...
Good. I know it's not the most dynamic jam in the band's repertoire, but listen. It's unique. It's (as far as I can tell) the only extended jam in the band's oeuvre where no single instrument takes the lead. It's not a solo where Boyd rips away and the horns punctuate with background licks. It's not about one instrument rising above the rest. It's about balance. Every instrument in the band plays some very simple riff (Dave's bittersweet piano melody, Tim's electric guitar chirps, the horns soft whine), and the whole group moves forward together. Maybe balance isn't thrilling (watching seven musicians build a moment together at the same pace is inherently less exciting than watching Warren Haynes blast a solo while the band backs him up), but it's tough to do. It's something that shows how great this band is, and how well they can talk to each other with instruments. It fits the theme of the song well too-- seven people working together to build something impressive. "Mercy" has been (so far this tour) played at 36% of shows-- so, if you're going to multiple shows, odds are, you'll see it. When Dave starts the song, you may be inclined to huff and grab your cellphone or get a beer. You might have an idea for a good word in "Words With Friends." But, give it a shot. You might find you get into it this year.
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