The last time we saw The Decemberists was back during endtimes of The Crane Wife tour in 2007 in Wolverhampton (in the Wulfrun Hall). It was a pleasure to see them, but marred somewhat by a poorly Colin Meloy - I expect he hasn't risked a dodgy balti again in a hurry since then.
So my level of excited anticipation at getting the chance to see The Decemberists again was tempered by an awareness that we are the mercy of all manner of factors. For a start, the best date we could make without problems with work days was Valentine's Day (would we be able to travel easily? could we get accommodation?) in Leeds, when Leeds were due to play Milwall (at home) and Sheffield were due to play Brighton (at home). Oh joy - travelling with footie fans?
Then again, Valentine's Day, in my old alma mater city (Leeds), and with support by Serafina Steer*. We had to be hopeful.
So what did we get? Well, we got a range of songs from pretty much every era - albeit not stretching as far back as the earliest 'Five Songs EP' - leaving plenty of newer converted fans to no doubt scurry to the back catalogue. There were the requisite two periods of encore with the first three song encore including a special favourite of mine "The Sporting Life"**, and the latter (after persuading Neil 'NO: the lights will go down properly again') seeing Jenny Conlee strap on the accordion (cue me screeching a gleeful 'YES!!!!'). Oh it was every bit as wonderful as I could have hoped.
Here's the setlist from Saturday 14 Feb 2015, but I'm going to run through this with recollections.
When the lights went down and Colin Meloy strode out, three-piece suited (love a vest/waistcoat + suit outfit) and under a single spotlight began "We Belong to You", the audience inhaled and swooned to this sweetly acute reflection on fandom and the symbiotic relationship between a band and its following. Backing singers and band joined steadily to further cheers as the song climaxed and with scarce a pause for the cheers of the crowd stepped into "16 Military Wives". Meloy is obviously feeling more confident with remembering the complex numbered lyrics and any stumbles were delightedly forgiven. We did our la-di-da's with glee as Meloy choreographed our volume and side-to-side competition.
Inevitably, the show was centred on the new album - and it is a VERY fine album - but by mixing old (twelve) alongside the new (seven tracks) it was possible to see the continuities and also the development: the 'we had to change' logged by "We belong to you". And performing this well, engaged with the audience, gaining requisite silence and gushing yells, they prove why we love them. Who can argue with a hurdy-gurdy playing band? Who could refuse the pleasures of a band who can include a 9 year old 12 minute prog-rock-esque three-song-cycle ("The Island: Come and See, The Landlord's Daughter, You'll Not Feel the Drowning")? A personal highlight was "Los Angeles I'm Yours", which was introduced as a song about a place to avoid. Cue crowd yelling 'Blackpool!' and a long exchange about the merits or otherwise of places the Portlandiers hadn't heard of - someone else suggested Scarborough which led to the usual US pronunciation hilarities of 'Scar-bo-row?'). For me it always reminds me of visiting LA and finding the Decemberists 'star' up by the Capitol Music building.
There was the expected but utterly inappropriate rowdy singing along to "The Rake's Song" - "You do KNOW it's a song about child murdering?!" - and plenty of acknowledgement of the bleakness of their narratives - "we don't really do love songs - they're always about dead people!" (Cue "Eli, The Barrow Boy" and wistful sighs from a delighted audience revelling in a non-Valentine day dedication.)
That the main set ended on their Hispanic gang drama "O Valencia!" was tear-inducing in its fabulousness - I still can't listen to the line "And her frame went limp in my arms" without tears rolling. Uproarious cheers as they depart the stage. We want more.
Yes, encores are 'pantomime' as David Thomas calls them, but they're a welcome respite for performers and audiences. It adds a frisson to everything that comes next - you hope for your perfect culmination of the evening. I knew what I wanted, what plenty wanted, but I also knew that on their last visit approximately 4 years previously, they HADN'T done it.
So when Neil indicated for a quick escape after the first three encore songs concluded I kept him still. I wanted. I needed to wait. Strapping on the accordion - oh Jenny you have no idea how giddy my cheers were. And the performance was every bit as shambling, audience-focused and performative as I could have hoped. Demonstrations of Chris Funk's damaged leg*** acted as the cue for the audience to SCREAM as the "jaws of a giant whale" swallowed us, the band laid down during the wait between the swallowing and the recovery, and a good proportion of the audience knew every word of the shaggy revenge tale.
"The Mariner's Revenge Song" is both the perfect introduction to The Decemberists and probably the most wonderfully baffling. They're either going to love it or you'll spend the next 10-15 minutes trying to explain the whole thing. I could not have asked for a better ending to the day - apart from a pint of excellent scrumpy in Friends of Ham and a bag of french fries from a suitably dodgy fast food store near the dodgy nightclubs. Perfect!
Previous praising of The Decemberists here:
- In Praise of....
Praise from elsewhere:
Stereogum - a selection of 10 great Decemberists tracks. It isn't 'right' but it does include some fine selections
*Shamefully under appreciated by a chattering crowd. Boo. Possibly the only downside of the night.
**On Steve Lamacq's "Good Day/Bad Day" slot in December 2011 I chose The Decemberists "The Sporting Life" to be played. Yay!
***Injury sustained by skidding off at 15 miles an hour. Not exactly rock and roll.