A hectic 3 gigs in 4 days draws to a close with something completely different again; after some girly ramshackle garage rock in Bristol on Saturday, it’s back down the M4 for some cerebral, occasionally slow-burn alt-indie country/ folk from Oregon tunesmiths The Decemberists. After my first, very enjoyable, encounter with them, at this same venue 4 years back (gig 808) I’d picked up more of their back catalogue, generally liking most of it but finding parts a little self-indulgent and veering towards the “Prog Alert” button, as I’d been previously warned about. Nevertheless, new album “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World” has on early listens continued the good straightforward path of its’ breakthrough predecessor “The King Is Dead”, so I’m up for some more “live” Decemberists!
So was Tim, so he picked us up for a catch up during a swift drive down and early arrival at the already busy venue – t’was a sell-out tonight! Unfortunately, that meant we were there for solo opener, harpist Serafina Steer, who was awful. Apparently working through certain song themes – instructional, karaoke and ghost songs – it all came across as just inaccessibly weird for weird’s sake, and despite her efforts to engage the crowd, this set was one to just grit your teeth and unwillingly endure. Thankfully, better was to come as, after a short wait in our increasingly crammed usual spot, stage right, a trumpet fanfare heralded the arrival of the Decemberists, dead on 9. Mainman Colin Meloy took the stage solo for opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, the band joining him in stages to fill in the sound to a crescendo, before bursting into the sudden, bouncy and brassy “Wake Up Boo!” soundalike that is the upbeat “Cavalry Captain”, possibly the Decemberists’ most pure “pop” moment to date.
“Welcome to the show; together, collectively, we’ll have fun; there may be some low moments – sadness, tragedy, death – but eventually we’ll prevail!” announced the bearded Meloy at its’ conclusion, the first of many lengthy and articulately phrased soliloquys from the man tonight – many of which, oddly, involved apologising to, “the people of Bristol,” for spreading a long-held misapprehension that Depeche Mode originated from there! Clearly a very intelligent man – the use of words such as “obfuscate” and “paradigm” during said speeches underlining this – Meloy occasionally veers towards clever-dickness, but unlike, say, “comedian” David Mitchell, who always comes across as utterly desperate to convey to his audience just how brow-beatingly intelligent he is and thereby shows himself up as a smug twat, Meloy rescues himself with his self-effacing humour and wry, witty attitude. Musically, his band mirror the character of their talisman, who clearly has a voracious and varied appetite for music and funnels it directly through the filter of his intellect. The set thereby veered through REM influenced alt-country (“Down By The River” and the excellent, strumalong “Calamity Song”), almost 50’s doo-wop balladry (newie “Philomena”, introduced as “a dirty song!”), through the lengthy and slightly jarring prog workout of “The Island” and thankfully out the other side to the acerbic slow-burn country character assassination of “Los Angeles I’m Yours” and the tub-thumping, Violent Femmes-esque murder ballad of “The Rake’s Song” (“I don’t know why you’ve cheered – it’s a disgusting song – you’re all complicit!”).
Also, given the few times I’ve actually chanced to listen to the new album, I was surprised how vividly I recalled new tracks played tonight, testament to their increasing hookiness, and thankfully their move away from those “prog” days. “Make You Better” was a late set highlight, it’s subtle, moody verses ceding to an immense chorus and harmonic crescendo. Typically perversely, Meloy announced his intention to close the set with their worst number, strumming a couplet from “Dracula’s Daughter” before a fine “O Valencia” to finish a 1 ½ hour set that seemed half that. We got 2 encores as as well – a 3 song first, highlighting the galloping “Charming Man”-alike of “Sporting Life”, then “The Mariner’s Revenge”, a widescreen sea shanty involving some audience participation primal screaming as we disappeared into the belly of a whale. This amazingly took us to 2 hours, a lengthy wait for a set-list bearing fruit before a swift drive back. Varied, chameleonic, literary, highly articulate and cerebral, yet currently writing damn fine songs with memorable hooks; I’m very much enjoying The Decemberists!