Wednesday, 9 March 2011

808 THE DECEMBERISTS, Blind Pilot, Bristol O2 Academy, Tuesday 8 March 2011

I'd been warned about The Decemberists. A US alt-rock band that had been skirting around the periphery of my rock vision for awhile, I'd finally picked up current CD "The King Is Dead" and found it a lovely little alt. country-folk-rock collection of heart-warming tunes with a definite, almost devotional nod to the "Reckoning" era of nascent REM. A facebook message from no less a luminary than Geoff Van Duyne, former Army Of Jasons mainman, had however warned that, "they'll put you off rock'n'roll and you'll find yourself saying things like "Four And Twenty" instead of "Twenty Four"," which raised my pretentiousness hackles somewhat. An "Uncut" interview underlined this, suggesting that lead Decemberist, Colin Meloy, had a more cerebral than emotive attitude to playing music, potentially also ringing the "Prog Alert" alarms. Nevertheless, give 'em a chance...

A shit day at work also meant that I was really in need of a good gig, so off I went with a feeling of slight trepidation, zooming down and hitting the already heaving venue at 8.20, navigating my way onto the crowded floor just as support Blind Pilot were rounding up their nice but innocuous backwoods folk/ country set. An odd crowd as well, the Decemberists' massive; lots of granddad jackets, knitwear, glasses and facial hair in evidence. I felt very young indeed, and also as if I'd landed in a History Teacher's convention!

The Decemberists, led by mainman Colin Meloy, came on at 9 to a silly taped introduction from one Sam Adams, apparently Portland's Mayor, and eased into a catchy opener, "July". "Calamity", the REM "Talk About The Passion" clone from the current CD, was next up, and already the gregarious Meloy's erudite, wry and humorous between-song repartee ("this one's about a miner's uprising in 1917; just what you want, a topical number that talks to you about your life...") was winning me over, as was the understated, well-played and extremely well paced set. "Sporting Life", a touching Smiths homage with a Fall "Lie Dream" drumbeat, was embellished by Meloy with a "Charming Man" lyric reference. A gorgeous pedal-steel fuelled ballad was followed by a riff-heavy blues glam stomp with impassioned vocals from guest Sarah Watkins, which then was followed by Meloy slapping on a mandolin for "Crane 3", a gorgeous slow burn to a lengthy descending hook, and a set highlight.

Overall, this is a band that wears their influences firmly on their sleeve, and seems out of time, more at home perhaps in the jangly early 80's underground, along with The Smiths and the early countrified REM. I enjoyed playing "Spot The Steal" (a Stills drum intro here, a Pogues reference there, lots of little REM vignettes, even a drum dominated number recalling the National's more discordant moments) as Meloy, evidently a man with an impressive record collection but also an ear for simple catchy melody, dominated proceedings, and his bandmates sat back and indulged his foibles. The splendid 2-part harmony of the rollicking "This Is Why We Fight" was my set highlight, although a lengthy set-closing "Chimbly Sweep", featuring a blues interlude and lots of quirky audience participation, ran it close.

Two encores, including a preposterous but fun sea shanty "Mariner's Revenge" and a heart-rending parched final "June Hymn" rounded off a 2 hour set touchingly and very well. Fears largely unfounded, The Decemberists tonight delivered a very entertaining - and yes, in parts emotive! - performance. Good gig, just what I needed, and a lot better than the return journey, thanks to a stinky and lengthy diversion around the old Gloucester Road. Bah!

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