The Decemberists

Academy 1, Manchester on Thu 10th Mar 2011

Standing in the sea of fans in Manchester's Academy 1, it took some mental adjusting to shake the feeling that I was in the wrong place. It seems the small and humble folk rock outfit I knew from my mp3 infused imagination, were neither very small, nor particularly humble. The music of The Decemberists has a story telling quality, and a traditional American folk aesthetic that conjures images of plaid shirts, running water and fir trees. A more appropriate venue would be a small wooden shack in the forest, the air impregnated with the smell of Douglas firs and fresh coffee cooking on the stove. But, alas, this time we had to make do with the uninspiring black box on Oxford Road – which I heard, to enhance the antithesis, is the most polluted stretch of road in Europe.

But none of this matters, because as the band to played, the room began to transform into a colourful story book. They warmed up with a few songs from their latest album 'The King is Dead' which was released earlier this year and marks a change in direction for them. It is as though front man and lyricist Colin Meloy has stopped writing epic poems, and started writing sonnets; the songs are much shorter, and have a sentimental country influence complemented by the fact that the lyrics are focused on seasons and the passing of the months.

The sound was rich and vivid; each of the six performers bringing an influence that could be picked out and savoured alone, or appreciated as a complimentary part of the whole. To name but a few of the instruments in action, there were acoustic and electric guitars, electric and string bass, an accordion, a piano, a xylophone, drums and finally a fiddle. Played at one point by the multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk was an instrument that I honestly could not recognise, the playing of which involved winding a lever. I won’t even try to describe the sound.

The quaint beauty of these opening tracks and the tense rise and fall of 'Annan Water' left me utterly immersed, but it was when they played the entire three parts of the epic romance 'The Crane Wife', from their fourth album of the same name, that I became truly awestruck. It was a treat to hear the story told in order (the songs are split up on the album) and something about the quiet sorrow of the first two parts, Meloy repeating "my crane wife, my crane wife", and the inevitable swell into the remorseful crescendo of part three, "and I will hang my head, hang my head low", gave me goose bumps. The now popular "rake song" was also transformed in the live setting, the blood red lighting and the spiking percussion giving it tangible edginess that made the sociopathic content of the lyrics even more disturbing.

They finished the show with two encores, first treating us to 'The Mariners Revenge Song' in all its dramatic splendour, making the crowd sway to emulate the ocean and scream their heads off at the part where the protagonist is swallowed by a whale; at which point the entire band fell to the floor, and Meloy climbed to his feet, all but standing on one of his band mates, to play the next part of the song. Being so involved with the narrative of this song and seeing the movement of the crowd was like being sucked into my favourite childhood popup book, and conjured up all the long lost feelings of innocent wonder.

The second encore started with the sweet and hopeful 'June Hymn', and they said goodnight with a humble rendition of 'Ask' by The Smiths. I am literally kicking myself about how long it has taken me to see the Decemberists. The beauty of the music along with the powerful story driven lyrical content and superb showmanship is a combination I've never seen done in this way, or at least not nearly as well. Don't let this tour pass you by.

article by: Robert Knowles

published: 14/03/2011 11:06


sorry, we currently have no gigs listed for this act.