The Decemberists @ London Royal Festival Hall
Until their most recent album ‘The Crane Wife’ was bizarrely afforded two UK releases, The Decemberists have not had much critical or commercial attention here. This makes it all the more surprising that the Royal Festival Hall (a rather sedate venue for their spirited live show) is pretty full, if not quite completely sold out. Maybe it’s the buzz that surrounds them on the internet (the ‘Pitchfork effect’ certainly worked for Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene), or maybe it’s just that the British public have much more sophisticated tastes in indie-rock than the pages of the NME would suggest. It’s a strange mix in the audience tonight – a good balance between male and female, but on the whole rather middle-aged. It’s not often these days that I feel young at a rock gig!
The Decemberists are one of those bands that have quietly and gradually worked their way into my affections. If their preoccupation with history, myth and folklore initially seemed rather twee, I now feel that they are expanding the language of rock songwriting through exploring the possibilities of storytelling in its purest form. In the process, they are neatly proving that songs don’t always have to derive from personal experience. I have considerable respect for this, particularly as I find detached, narrative-based songs much harder to write than those I draw from personal emotions and experiences.
To John Kell’s horror (http://www.johnkell.blogspot.com/), I recently described The Decemberists as ‘prog folk’, and some of their recent output directed me to assume, quite mistakenly as it transpires, that they might possibly take themselves a little too seriously. Musically and lyrically, they have cultivated a penchant for the epic, and there are plenty of elaborate arrangements on display here, even with the band stripped back to its five-member core. Whilst they emphasise their more expansive side tonight, opening with a highly theatrical version of ‘The Tain’ (apparently the first UK performance of this extended work) and airing the segued epics from ‘The Crane Wife’, they are also remarkably jovial and entertaining too. They tear into ‘The Perfect Crime’ and ‘O Valencia’ with a reckless abandon that is a joy to watch and the so far unreleased ‘Culling of the Fold’ is a gleeful song ‘advocating violence’.
They are an appropriately odd looking bunch. Frontman Colin Meloy resembles a peculiar hybrid of history teacher, winsome indie tunesmith and, disconcertingly, Edward from The League of Gentlemen. Fortunately, he’s a lot more personable than such a description would suggest, providing lengthy and frequently hilarious asides in his onstage banter. He claims that he needs to stop because we haven’t paid for ‘spoken word’, but he is so ridiculously verbose that the chatter is nearly as welcome as the music. The brilliant exposition on the story of the stolen bicycle that forms the basis of ‘The Apology Song’ is a particular highlight.
In the extended works, there’s plenty of instrument swapping, with accompanying exaggerated gestures and handshakes. There’s also a boundless energy, with Meloy quite literally bouncing across the breadth of the stage and at one point even singing from the audience. He’s not even in the slightest bit embarrassed that he ends up requiring assistance to get back to his rightful position again. Tonight, the group’s combination of fairytale, dry humour and audience participation takes the word ‘quirky’ to bold new levels.
If there’s a gripe, it’s that the emphasis on suites of music leaves little time for wider foraging into their back catalogue – a ‘Song For Myla Goldberg’, ‘The Sporting Life’ or ’16 Military Wives’ would have provided some more concise bursts of pop joy. That’s a bit of a petty fanboy quibble though, and the inspired encore of deconstructed sea shanty ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ more than compensates, with plenty of demented onstage antics and implausibly named guitarist Chris Funk exhorting us to scream as if swallowed by a whale. It’s an outpouring of unashamed collective insanity that neatly encapsulates the energy and spirit of this excellent concert.