The Decemberists, Hammersmith Odeon, London, 7th November 2018

Under a backdrop dominated by a giant mad-eyed grinning skull The Decemberists returned to the UK, still a little jet-lagged despite landing four days earlier, but determined anyway, to do their very best. This tour has the most recent album ‘I’ll Be Your Girl‘ behind it, and the set list would reflect this but we were also promised the songs that had shaped our lives. And when Colin Meloy makes you a promise you can take that to the bank.

Easing us in with ‘Don’t Carry It All‘ immediately delivers on that promise with everything that is majestic about The Decemberists. And ‘Sucker’s Prayer‘ encapsulates everything that’s great about the new album – it’s Meloy in a characteristically pessimistic mood, but prevented at every turn by a conspiring fate from following through on his darkest urges for self-destruction. And so, eventually, left to cry out to the skies (or the upper circle in this case) “I want to love somebody but I don’t know how / I’ve been so long lonely and it’s getting me down / I want to throw my body in the river and drown“. If there was ever any doubt, The Decemberists had the audience in the palms of their collective hands at this point and could do whatever they wanted and it would get the deserved roar of approval. Isn’t it great when a band do that one simple thing we ask of them – be brilliant in performance?

Cutting Stone‘ is a fine complicated folk murder ballad – although Colin Meloy prefers to see it as offering a path to freedom. It starts with a gentle acoustic accompaniment then Jenny Conlee’s keyboards kick-in taking us to some strange new 21st century version of folk-rock. ‘Severed‘ goes further down this path, making the waves of electronic sound the dominant musical motif – but listen to the words and we’re still safely in Decemberists territory, only we can dance to this one without finding we’ve accidentally performed a hornpipe.

Rox In The Box’ has a flash of Offa Rex as a chorus of ‘The Blackleg Miner‘ is blended into it. It’s not as good as a guest appearance by Olivia Chaney, but it’s a nice nod to the excellent side project. But when it comes to blending songs together nothing outdoes the sublime segue from the gorgeous ‘Crane Wife 1 & 2‘ to the hard folk rocking of ‘The Queen’s Rebuke‘ from ‘Hazards of Love‘, it’s a glorious combination which fits together with the elegance of a dove tail joint. The rapturously received ‘O Valencia!‘ is intercut with Meloy’s self-confessed worst song that he has ever written – ‘Dracula’s Daughter‘ – which becomes a rambling free form folk condemnation of Donald Trump, someone so low and despicable and worthless that even the titular character would pity him “despite being the daughter of Dracula“.

We All Die Young‘ is a simple statement of fact – but the chorus, it seems, is beyond most of us. The song is stopped whilst Meloy has a teach-in on the nuance of the third line. And, channelling a Pete Seeger accuracy he insists that it’s important to get it right. It’s actually not that hard – but boy does the audience struggle. No such problems occur with ‘Once In My Life,’ another moment of high energy and cathartic despairing pleading with a heartless and uncaring universe.

The triumphant encore leads off with the beautiful cautionary tail of the dangers of being lulled by the voice of the river spirit – oh, those nyads, they promise much with loving tones – but they have darker motivations by far. ‘Rusalka / The Wild Rushes‘ is an incredible combination – both halves of the song sound like ancient folk songs that have been dusted down and given new life – fully capturing the bleakness and magical dangers that await around every bend that are at the heart of the greatest of the long-lived folk songs. ‘Benjamin Franklin‘ couldn’t be any further in feel from this – a song rejected from the musical Hamilton because it might sound a bit “Decemberisty” is taken up by the band with gusto – and although “it’s a bit sweary“, an understatement, Meloy is able to re-assure a particularly young audience member at the front of the stalls that “there are no bad words, only bad usage“.  It’s a performance that doesn’t shy away from the educational. The evening is capped, of course, by ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song‘. And with the ship wrecking leviathan, the whale that swallows hunter and prey, bouncing over our heads, The Decemberists have achieved their Pink Floyd moment. And then it’s a happy stroll to the doors as ‘Goodnight Irene‘ floats o’er our heads. A good night, indeed.

Set List 

Don’t carry it all
Sucker’s Prayer
Make you better
Cutting stone
Shankill butchers
The Engine Driver
On the Bus mall
Rox in the box / Black leg miner
Crane Wife 1 & 2 / The Queen’s Rebuke
Severed
We all die young
O Valencia! / Dracula’s Daughter
Once in my life

<Encore>

Rusalka / The Wild Rushes
Benjamin Franklin
Mariner’s Revenge Song

Author: Jonathan Aird

Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?

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