It had been eight years since my last encounter with The Decemberists. They’d been touring The Crane Wife and my abiding memory of this show at Academy 2 in Manchester was the sense of joy the band seemed to possess, performing for the immensely enthusiastic crowd that night.
The Singer Addresses His Audience opens The Decemberists‘ latest record What A Terrible World, What a Beautiful World and it has the same job in Manchester tonight. Colin Meloy emerges as an enigmatic silhouette and uses the track to gradually bring on the rest of his troupe, including two female backing singers, vital to the harmonies inherent within the new album. It’s certainly a dramatic way to start the show and this is followed by Cavalry Captain, which is a highlight off the new record. Meloy’s strength as a songwriter and a vocalist lies in his abilities of alliteration and this song is great example of this quality. Combined with his impressive skills in projecting his voice, the song sounds amazing in the large venue. Polished to a high sheen, one question begins to emerge though; were the band actually enjoying themselves?
The REM inspired album The King is Dead provides the next two tracks. Down by the Water and Calamity Song are again performed impeccably but there is a sense that the band are going through the motions. It is therefore a great fillip for a band when they have a frontman as engaging as Colin Meloy and tonight the show is glavanised by his little interludes which at times have the audience roaring, particularly his introduction to Philomena, which he informs the crowd was in no way meant to conjure up racy images of Dame Judi Dench! Up to this point however there is still a sense that the band are on auto-pilot and it is only with The Island that this feeling starts to dissipate. The track is delivered in three parts, brooding and atmospheric throughout and it is during this song that Jenny Conlee’s contribution to the band’s sound really comes to the fore. Animated and energised, her colleagues appear to feed off her intensity creating a theatrical soundscape that establishes the character of the show from this moment forward.
This half of the gig is made up of tracks from several different albums including perhaps my favourite Decemberists track, the wonderfully vivid Legionnaire’s Lament and this perhaps helps to identify the reservations I had about tonights performance. The first half of the show relied very much on material from the new album. It is by no means a bad record. I don’t think The Decemberists will ever release a bad record. That being said What A Terrible World, What a Beautiful World certainly appears to lack the personality so inherent within previous releases and it is only when The Decemberists return to these older tracks, chock full of vim and vigour, that the rest of the band really come to life.
As the show heads towards its conclusion therefore, we are treated to glorious renditions of 16 Military Wives and Oh, Valencia but one thing still seems to be missing compared to that show eight years ago. Colin Meloy loves getting the crowd involved and The Rake’s Song provides the opportunity to address this omission up to this point. Conducting the moment, Meloy manipulates the crowd to provide a range of different claps that ebb and flow, complimenting the song and essentially proving to be a lot of fun for a game audience. It was a nice moment and that interaction would return during the second encore, which the band gratefully return for. The song is The Mariner’s Revenge Song which is an epic, magnum opus of a composition that encapsulates the spirit of the band. It makes complete sense that the group would assemble together at the front of the stage for this song and the sense of joy that they all have performing it is palpable. The crowd feed on this as they contribute their deafening scream indicating the moment we’re all eaten by a whale at the song’s conclusion. It is a magnificent way to end the show, which ultimately is a huge, enjoyable success. It just took it’s time getting there.
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Review by Iain Fox | @IainFoxPhoto
Concert Review: @TheDecemberists at @MancAcademy in #Manchester –