What’s remarkable about The Decemberists is their ability to master their sound during a live show.
Monday 16th February saw Portland’s indie folk rock quintet The Decemberists play an incredible sold out show at Bristol’s O2 Academy. With the exception of their most recent album, ‘What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World’, I made an effort not to listen to the band’s previous records prior to the show – it’s always a pleasant surprise to see a live band with next to no first impressions, and they did not disappoint.
Doors opened at 7pm, and the sold out crowd grew from fifty to a thousand with the hour. The most remarkable thing about this crowd, however, was the age range. From enthusiastic teenage girls rushing to get to the front row, to 12-year-old boys who had tagged along with parents, right up to some of the older generations too. It definitely goes to show that The Decemberists have a song for everyone. Around 8pm, opening act Serfina Steer took to the stage. The London-based singer-songwriter and harpist performed a glittering (literally) hour-long set, featuring a range of song themes – instructional, karaoke and ghost songs. Weird, but it works. Occupying the middle ground between Florence Welch and Kate Nash, Steer manages to create her own electro-harmonic genre entirely.
Finally, the clock reached 9pm and out stepped The Decemberists’ frontman and lead vocalist Colin Meloy. Opening the set with the first track from the new album, titled ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’, the rest of the band – Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query and John Moen – gradually joined Meloy on stage. The song was shortly followed by the album’s second track ‘Cavalry Captain’, a significantly more upbeat track than its predecessor and clearly a fan favourite, going by the noise of the crowd.
Up next came a number of songs from older releases, including ‘Down by the Water’ and ‘Calamity Song’ from 2011’s ‘The King Is Dead’. A variety of old favourites by the names of ‘Carolina Low’ and ’16 Military Wives’ were performed later on in the night, mixed up between a few new tracks. What’s remarkable about The Decemberists is their ability to master their sound during a live show – it’s rare to find an act that can sound almost identical to their recorded material, but the Decemberists manage to do just that.
To lighten things up a little, Meloy made a joke about the next song ‘Philomena’ and about how it had been written (and named) before the Judy Dench film was released. However, that clearly hasn’t put fans off – despite the album having been released less than a month prior to the show, almost every member of the crowd were singing along like it was the most important thing in the world. The same goes for the album’s first single, ‘Make You Better’, which followed later on in the set. Jeremy Larson of Pitchfork Media wrote highly of ‘Make You Better’, stating that “the band has never lacked the musical bona fides to write a great anthem” and he couldn’t be more right – this track is without doubt the best on the album.
Meloy closed the set with another joke about how the upcoming song was “the worst [he’s] ever written.” Followed by a roar of laughter from the audience, the band proceeded to play ‘O Valencia!’ before a quick wave to the audience as they left the stage. However, the show didn’t stop there when the band returned to perform another three tracks. The first took the form of ‘12/17/12’, written by Meloy about his conflicting feelings regarding the Sandy Hook shooting and his happy personal life.
To end the show (no, really this time), the band played a second encore consisting of only one song – ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’. It’s clear that this track was the one everyone had been waiting for all night, and the Decemberists did not hesitate to get every single member of the crowd involved with the infamous scream near the end of the song. There’s no denying that the show was one to remember, and I’ll definitely be seeing the Decemberists again on their next UK tour.
Check out ‘A Beginning Song’ right here: