Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Decemberists: Live

The Decemberists: Live at The Coronet, Elephant and Castle

How would you define confidence? The first entry on lists confidence as “full trust; belief in the powers, trustworthiness, or reliability of a person or thing”. Urban Dictionary states that confidence is “absolut could-care-fucking-less-what-every-fucking-body thinks” (well, they would, wouldn’t they?). But of all the myriad definitions, surely this ranks pretty high: how about releasing the album of the year, going on tour and then playing said album in its entirety as a warm-up to your own gig? Yep, The Decemberists sure have confidence – such an act fits both the definitions above – and on the evidence of their show at The Coronet, it most definitely isn’t misplaced.

The Elephant and Castle Coronet in South East London is primarily used for club nights rather than live gigs and only holds 2600. It seemed a pretty small venue for a Decemberists show, especially seeing as it was a sell-out weeks in advance and was one of only two London performances to promote The Hazards of Love (the other being at the even-smaller Kentish Town Forum).

The show opened – unsurprisingly – with Prelude, and cheers and whoops reverberated round the theatre as the various band members gradually wandered onstage. Colin Meloy’s guitar rang out the opening riff for The Hazards of Love #1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone) and from that point on, it was non-stop. The Decemberists performed all seventeen tracks of The Hazards of Love without pause and without hesitation. The delicate, tender tracks (Isn’t It a Lovely Night?, The Hazards of Love #4 (The Drowned)) were given even more consideration and attention, while the more upfront, rock numbers (The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid, The Rake’s Song) were raced through with an urgent intensity. On Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga), drummer John Moen went hell for leather, attacking his hi-hat and snare with both sticks simultaneously.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Hazards of Love (and if so, seriously, where have you been?), it’s basically a concept album. There’s a narrative arc throughout, centring around four main characters: two of which are voiced by Meloy, and the other two by guest vocalists Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. Just to make it clear who’s good and who’s bad, Stark wore white and Worden wore black throughout the show and they were in fine voice, Worden in particular performing some applause-worthy vocal gymnastics on Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.

As the final strains of The Hazards of Love #4 (The Drowned) died out, the crowd rose as one to give an ovation and Meloy said, “Hi, London, we’re the Decemberists,” before the band left the stage. People in the crowd were looking at each other in amazement as if to say “there’s more?!” and it was hard to imagine how such a spectacle could be matched.

The second half showed that, as well as being writers of extended pop fiction of the highest order, The Decemberists are the jauntiest band in music today. Their songs seem to trigger a Pavlovian response, where you can’t help but move in time to the bass, which is almost oompah-like at times. After an hour of solid music in part one, Meloy and the rest of the band engaged with the audience extensively in part two, and displayed their acumen as traditional all-round entertainers. There was a story of how violent The Elephant and Castle pub in Portland, Oregon is, which ended with the payoff, “so, really, I think you guys could’ve picked somewhere better to name this area after”, there was jazz improvisation between songs and there was even a singalong, where Meloy divided the crowd up (“hey, you there, yeah, you, step left, hey, everyone, this is Dennis, we take him everywhere”), got them to harmonise and then shifted the dynamics like an orchestra conductor.

Oh yeah, there were songs too: great, great songs. The Yankee Bayonet, O Valencia! and Sixteen Military Wives all got a great response. Admittedly, they didn’t play my favourite (We Both Go Down Together, since you’re asking) but I was too busy enjoying myself to really care. After what seemed like not long at all, they retreated backstage once more, leaving the baying crowd hungry, despite the fact an obvious return was imminent, as it always is in these situations.

Meloy returned solo and performed a heartfelt rendition of Eli, The Barrow Boy which had the packed venue almost silent in reverence before the other Decemberists returned. Meloy subsequently announced that for their last song, the crowd would need to “scream as if they were in the belly of a whale”, which triggered possibly the loudest cheer of the night. All five band members stood stage front (plus an inflatable killer whale, courtesy of some industrious soul in the crowd) and ripped through a high-energy version of The Mariner’s Revenge, which was a culmination of everything that had occurred over the previous two hours. There were highs, lows, noise, silence, screams, dancing, slow bits and fast bits, Russian Cossack dancing (evidently quite difficult whilst playing a double bass) and such ferocious drumming that by halfway through the song, the stage was strewn with drumstick and tambourine debris.

A shellshocked, buzzing throng then emerged into the autumnal London night and went their various ways home, all united by what they’d witnessed. That was my night with The Decemberists; they’ve finished their A Short Fazed Hovel (an anagram of The Hazards of Love) tour, so, um, sorry… you really should’ve been there, these paltry words are nothing like an adequate substitute.

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