Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Decemberists, Manchester Academy, 17th February 2015 8/10

A four year hiatus from touring and recording meant that the chance to see The Decemberists live had eluded me until now. Frontman Colin Meloy had been busy writing children's books, whilst keyboardist Jenny Conlee battled cancer, a dichotomy reflected in the title of their comeback album. What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World steers a course towards escapism, aiming more to comfort than challenge. Yet, my expectations were raised by positive early reviews of the UK tour. Opener Serafina Steer initially seem to struggle to synchronise her vocals and harp playing, and the slightly crude electronic beats from her Macbook sounded incongruous, Yet, midway through the set with the song World of Love, the evening suddenly sprang into life, and her oblique, somewhat eccentric English style drew me in, even it would surely have felt more appropriate in a smaller venue than Academy 1.

The Decemberists have developed a full gamut of performance techniques over 15 years to reach right to the back of ever larger venues, and their stage craft was polished. The sound was faultless, with six backing members, including two female vocalists, producing a gorgeously rich tone with an array of  acoustic instruments including double bass and mandolin, combined with electric guitars and a variety of keyboards. The act was dominated though by the be-suited Meloy's distinctive tenor voice and witty personality. He revelled in his role as a choreographer not only of the band, but the audience, culminating in a somewhat mannered rendition of The Mariner's Revenge Song, pitched towards those who were not entirely sober by this point in the evening. Elsewhere, gorgeous folk melodies like Till The Water's All Long Gone sounded as beautiful as the band's Pacific Northwest landscape of Oregon.

The main set was bookended by the opening and closing tracks of their new album, and recent material dominated the first part of the generous two hour set, but I found greater depth in some of the earlier material. Pitchfork characteristically over stated their case when they described What A Terrible World as a  'cruise down the middle of the road, sounding more like a polite, modern folk rock band with only a touch of antiquity here and there.' In fact, 12/17/12 tackles the gritty issue of the Newtown school shootings, whilst the haunting ballad Carolina Low shows an emotional directness. In moving away from historical narrative, The Decemberists' work has become more personal, and expanded beyond bombastic jauntiness.

Yet, they're not a band who looks likely to push any stylistic boundaries, Last night's highlight was the extraordinarily epic The Island from their 2006 album The Crane Wife. A Japanese folk tale divided into three movements may sound esoteric, but musically it showed a willingness to take risks and quirkiness that seems to have been reigned in since the hiatus. The show was slickly confident, fun, and absorbing, but didn't really stretch my musical imagination. Meloy is perhaps wary of alienating his loyal and numerous followers: talking about the new album, he said: 'I wanted to write pretty songs. Hazards of Love was partly about making songs that were ugly or scary or weird'. He commented last night on the mass of faces smiling back at the band, and he can hardly be blamed for wanting to make as many people as possible happy. It seems churlish to criticise an act with this much joyous energy, wrapping the audience in a warm embrace of harmonies and conviviality.

  • The Singer Addresses His Audience 
  • Cavalry Captain 
  • Down by the Water 
  • Calamity Song
  • Sleepless
  • On The Bus Mall
  • Philomena
  • The Wrong Year
  • The Island
  • Los Angeles, I'm Yours
  • Carolina Low
  • Make You Better
  • The Rake's Song 
  • The Legionnaire's Lament
  • 16 Military Wives 
  • O Valencia!
  • 12/17/12 
  • A Beginning Song
  • The Mariner's Revenge Song 


  1. Your setlist is wrong, the island came much earlier in the set

  2. Thanks for letting me know, I've corrected it now.