The Decemberists – Live at The Academy, Leeds 11/03/2011

Review by Chris Gilliver

Few bands are quite so deeply unfashionable and misconstrued as The Decemberists. Though the NME grudgingly (and correctly) conceded that their charm permeated out as:

“They transposed wordy Victorian melodrama onto folky sea shanties. But at least once they had a snappy poetic sensibility and an admirable interest in history.”

The reviewer went onto describe their latest album as an “exercise in cuntery”. The NME is an exercise in cuntery, and that, my friends, is like the pot calling the kettle black (as my mum would say).

Uncut, on the other hand, was even further off the mark. In a review of The king Is Dead, they described The Crane Wife’s crowning glory, ‘The Island’, an unforgettable tale of rape and murder, in the following manner:

“On The Crane Wife (2006), Meloy turned to Japanese fable, Shakespeare, the American Civil War and the Siege of Leningrad as the inspiration for the content of his songs and, rather more regrettably, The Strawbs, Jethro Tull and even ELP for rather too much of the music, specifically the 12-minute suite, “The Island: Come & See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel The Drowning”.

Neither review can conceal the fact that their off-kilter, pseudo-historical subject matter is both entertaining, and deeply uncool, nor that their musical reference points are some of the most maligned acts in British music. It places music mags in a difficult position. They cannot simultaneously praise The Decemberists without also acknowledging and taking a fashionably, dim view of the above bands, which makes them look like the overly-opinionated, duplicitous fuckwits that they so obviously are. No matter how much they want to, they cannot stray from established opinion.

And ultimately, who gives a fuck about who they sound like, and what their influences are? True, front man, singer and songwriter Colin Meloy sounds like Russell Crowe doing a Welsh/Scottish/Irish accent – or whatever the hell it was supposed to be in Robin Hood – but he is, fundamentally, one of the finest songwriters in the world, with a unique talent for picking out stunning vocal lines, that add gravitas to the oddly, wordy, wonky, folky subject matter.

The last time The Decemberists toured Britain it was 2007, and I was due to see them in Bristol. The night before the gig I went down with a serious case of food poisoning and spent the whole night hallucinating, firmly believing that my bed was positioned on a giant Afro. The next day The Decemberists cancelled the rest of the tour. Having waited for four years for this tour I will not miss it for the world, which is why I’m travelling two hours to Leeds.

Judging by the amount of silver, grey hair in the audience, many are here because they remember The Strawbs, Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull fondly, and the good turn out is a happy reminder that popularity is not reliant on the music press.

It’s a surreal start: an unseen voice stating that the mayor of Oregon, Sam Adams (a reference to the popular American beer), is hovering above the audience, which is metaphorically true no doubt.

The show is both a triumph and a disappointment. It seems there is a grain of truth in the NME’s assessment of The Kind Is Dead. Six albums in and it appears that the band are becoming simultaneously as popular as they deserve to be, and that they are finally running out of steam, creatively speaking. Much of the material from the latest album seems to have displaced their quirkiness and experimentation with stridently mainstream Americana – there are no extended tales of murder, rape and revenge here – and in doing so they’ve cast aside their uniqueness.

That does not mean they’re indulging in “cuntery”, rather the opposite. Cuntery has a certain appeal, where as some of the tracks from The King Is Dead are something far worse: bland. ‘Down by the Water’ is genuinely enjoyable, but ‘January Hymn’ embodies this problem emphatically. All of which means that we end up tapping our toes and distractedly drinking our way through the new stuff, and waiting to get through to the classics. Which would be fine if the choice of tracks from the other five albums wasn’t also disappointing. Songs like ‘Sixteen Military Wives’, ‘July, July’ and ‘Sons & Daughters’ are enjoyable enough, but pale by comparison to others that should have been played, like ‘The Crane Wife 3’, ‘Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect’, and especially the nine-minute epic tale of revenge that ends with someone being tortured to death in a whale’s stomach: ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ (there was an audible gasp of disappointment and anger when the show ended without this being played).

On the other hand songs like ‘Shiny’, ‘Red Right Ankle’ and ‘The Island’ are nothing short of blinding, shocking shivers down my spine. And there’s absolutely no faulting their performance, which is slick, tight, professional, and, most importantly, fun. Colin Meloy is a blast, splicing the songs with fat fillets of banter. From the outside it would have been hard to tell whether it was a comedy or music gig.

The old showbiz saying, “Always leave them wanting more”, speaks volumes here. Despite a two hour set and two encores, it seems like we’re finishing half way through. And that’s just it, the main problem with The Decemberists isn’t that they are a bit too proggy, that they intermittently sound like bands which are at odds with established critical opinion, it’s that, such is the quality and quantity of their output, disappointment of some kind is unavoidable. We will never get exactly what we want because there are too many phenomenal tracks to fit into a two hour show. Such criticism, then, but I can think of no higher praise.

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