The stereotype of a Decemberists fan needs updating. If the band were actually ever followed by bookish boys with satchels, they’ve been replaced tonight by middle aged men with beards. But then a lot has changed since Colin Meloy and his folk rock troupe emerged from the Oregon indie scene at the start of the century. The last time The Decemberists came to Brighton, a few months before the release of their 2005 breakthrough album ‘Picaresque’, we saw them playing to a handful of punters in the old Freebutt. Tonight they’ve sold out the Brighton Dome.
The intervening years has seen the band stretch their ambitions in several directions, first with an epic folk song-cycle, then a prog rock concept album and later with a chart-topping album of REM-inspired Americana. Meloy has even branched out into writing children’s fiction with his wife Carson Ellis. Tonight The Decemberists are promoting ‘What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World’, their first release in four years.
After a low-key support slot from Serafina Steer, a harpist and singer with the whimsy of an English Regina Spektor, the crowds have only just got back from the bar when a tannoy announcement comes over asking everyone to leave the building. Amusingly, the fire alarm is universally ignored, punters preferring to risk death by fire than give up their seats. We’re strangely comforted by the public’s blithe disregard for health and safety, and sure enough, a few minutes later we’re informed it was a false alarm. However, it does mean the show is put back nearly half an hour.
Eventually Meloy walks on stage to an orchestral backing and strikes up with the new album’s opening track, ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’. It’s a self-conscious and direct statement of where Colin and co are at: “We know you threw your arms around us, in the hopes we wouldn’t change. But we had to change, some.”
After six or seven songs from the most recent records the full extent of the change becomes clear. Though there’s no denying these are musicians at the top of their game (there’s almost something unnerving about how effortless they make it seem), it’s also apparent that the songs have been shorn of some of the things that marked them out as special. Meloy’s lyrics, arguably the main draw for most fans, have all but ditched the weird rhymes and archaic lexicon that first made us sit up and listen. The eccentric characters that populate the band’s early songs – sailors, soldiers, barrow boys – have gradually been replaced by Meloy himself. That’s fair enough, the band has after all been roundly parodied on account of their historical obsessions, but it takes some getting used to.
It’s only when we’re treated to the new album’s novelty highlight, ‘Philomena’, a slice of pure 60s pop seemingly about oral sex, does the lyrical mischief creep back in. Tellingly, the other mid-set highlights are both ten-minute excerpts from the band’s prog days. It’s musos playing at being metallers (second guitarist, Chris Funk, is having fun flexing his fingers on some big riffs), but the arrangements are so tight it’s a joy to hear.
Just as the band’s sound, enhanced tonight by the addition of two backing singers, is surefooted and flawless – so too is Meloy’s banter. He’s a funny chap and even manages to pull off some entertaining class-war audience participation in his introduction to ‘16 Military Wives’, a song he frankly describes as being about “American imperialism”.
The set then ends with ‘O Valencia’, a perfectly crafted piece of guitar pop. Except it doesn’t. The pretend encore is tiresomely predictable, despite the late start and impending curfew (who do bands think they’re fooling?).
After two more newies they finish up, then return once more, this time signing off with ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ – everyone’s favourite interactive sea shanty. Suddenly the band are larking about, tying themselves and reluctant bouncers up with gaffa tape. For one song they let go and it’s anarchic and silly and fun. Meloy gets the words wrong and knocks over a mic stand. When a roadie picks it up, he kicks it over again with a cheeky smile. As the band collapse on the stage and the narrator’s ship is capsized by a whale, we get a glimpse of the drama-school geeks behind the arena pros and it makes us wonder why they had to change at all.
Then again, that a band can deliver such a strong set whilst missing out most of our favourite songs can only be proof that they’ve grown into something bigger than we gave them credit for. Well then, ring the changes. They probably wouldn’t be playing the Dome if all they did was roll about on the floor.
The Decemberists, Brighton Dome, Saturday 20th February 2015
Words by Ben Bailey