The Decemberists. Photographs by Rich Thane
A couple of years on from playing to “a couple of footballers” at the Cambridge City football bar, The Decemberists have returned to our fair city. And what a time to do it. Coming off the back of some serious touring action, including dates in the US with a full philharmonic orchestra, they played the Royal Festival Hall the previous night in London. The Junction must have felt like a bit of a comedown. But no matter, wherever Colin Meloy and his faithful followers roam, they’re always welcomed with open arms and warm hearts. Well, they certainly were tonight.
Land Of Talk. Photograph by Umit Koseoglu
Unfortunately my band of faithful followers were running a little late after an unexpected queue at the entrance to the show – a lot of the crowd were just turning up at the door for tickets – and we missed the first couple of tracks from the solitary support act Land of Talk. Now, what’s been bugging me about these guys (even now, hours after the show) is that I just can’t put my finger on who lead singer Lizzie Powell’s vocals remind me of… There’s a touch of Juanita Stein (Howling Bells) with a splash of PJ Harvey in her piercing and clear delivery. For a three piece they certainly made a racket, Powell’s hacksaw guitar crafting out some catchy riffs whilst the bass and drum backing skipping around and playing, at times, slightly off-kilter to the rest of the song. Maybe not entirely original then, but their half hour set past by quickly and the crowd seemed genuinely upset to see them leave the stage.
However, there was a air of anticipation around the crowd as the stage was set for The Decemberists. The crowd seemed split between those who knew all the words and those who knew none of the words. It did seem odd that there were so many people here who hadn’t heard them before; Cambridge’s music scene isn’t normally as adventurous, but what a night to come and see a band, they’re obviously riding high after their recent travels.
Taking the first couple of songs to warm up, Colin Meloy wooed the crowd and soon had us in the palm of his hand. A set that wasn’t overly dependent on their recent magnificent album The Crane Wife, for someone who might not have heard them before it gave you a perfect cross-section of their impressive back catalogue. It was also a revelation to hear the prog-ish tracks from The Crane Wife given life. Without the multi-layering and studio trickery, their live sound allows the songs to breath more freely, to take on the life that Meloy has instilled in them. What’s also apparent is how good Meloy’s voice really is. It sometimes sounds thin on record, but it has a reach and a depth live that you didn’t realise.
They’re also interested in entertaining the crowd. The entire band is infectious to watch, each of them displaying a quirk or twitch whilst they prowl and peform on stage. During “Perfect Crime” we catch a glimpse of Meloy as a frustrated rock star – peeling riffs from his, now electric, guitar and stepping out onto the front of the stage, wielding it in front of the crowd. The stage is bathed in red light for their sinister “Shankill Butchers”, not one of my favourites from the recent album, but tonight they’ve slowed it down and becomes all the more horrific because of it. There’s plenty of comedic moments as well. During “Perfect Crime” and one of its musical interludes Meloy calls to Jenny Conlee for a shaker only for him to drop it on the floor. The song stops, Meloy is passed the shaker and the song resumes. There’s also plenty of heckling, mainly for songs, but someone yells for a “Big Mac and fries”, to which Meloy says that he “only wishes he could satisfy us in that way and perhaps we should try Interpol”… a suitably cryptic comment and the whole band seem to look at each other for a moment in wonder… But that was the only confrontational and slightly random part of the evening.
We were certainly spoiled though. The marvellous duo of “The Engine Driver” and “On The Bus Mall” are two of the most perfect songs ever, the later one of my favourite love songs that pulls my heart strings each time I hear it. According to Meloy, this was only the “fourth or fifth time” that he’d managed to sing the “16 Military Wives” all the way through without “fucking up the lyrics”, which made us feel quite special as well. A sing-a-long rendition of their anti-war anthem “Songs and Daughters” finishes the evening. It comes complete with the crowd chanting “Hear all the bombs fade away” whilst the band leave the stage.
We might not have got a re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party, but we did get to be eaten by a whale during the encore. We also got the “World premier” of a new song. I hazard a guess that it’s called “Valerie Plain”, a story of school-yard love that could turn into one of their most memorable, and sing-able, songs. The evening ended with a majestic version of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, where the audience had to yell as if we’d been eaten by a whale. Which, according to Meloy, we did rather well considering we obviously hadn’t been eaten by a whale before. This audience participation, which can become clichéd with many a band, becomes a method to connect the audience with The Decemberists. Their romantic songs full of tales and wonder spirit the listener off into another world. Being part of their live act allows you, the audience, to live through them, be part of these long lost tales. It’s such a wondrous and heat-warming experience that you can do nothing but enjoy yourself.
As the crowd filtered out into the chill of the night air, everyone had a smile on their face. Not only have their bore witness to some great music, but they’ve been entertained at the same time. There’s plenty of acts out there who forget this latter and important part of playing live. The Decemberists would never do that.