The De­cem­berists

The Guardian - G2 - - Live Reviews - Betty Clarke

Even­tim Apollo, Lon­don Tour­ing un­til 12 Novem­ber

The De­cem­berists are the lit­tle band who ar­guably trans­formed the town of Port­land, Ore­gon, from a cool rock hub to the glob­ally recog­nised home of fa­cial hair and acous­tic gui­tars. Their love of lyri­cally rich and his­to­ryin­debted folk-rock pro­pelled them from out­siders to the top of the US al­bum charts in 2011. A year later, they af­firmed their pop cul­ture sta­tus by ap­pear­ing in an episode of the Simp­sons as Spring­field El­e­men­tary’s new mu­sic teach­ers. “Who wants to learn a song about press gangs and in­fan­ti­cide?” dead­pan singer Colin Meloy asked of a non­plussed class.

Now back in Lon­don, Meloy is busy warn­ing the chil­dren in the crowd of an on­slaught of up­com­ing swear­words in Ben Hamil­ton’s Song, but adds: “You’ll get a great his­tory les­son.” So far, so Port­landia. But the De­cem­berists are chang­ing. Since the 2015 re­lease of What a Ter­ri­ble World, What a Beau­ti­ful World, the band have been qui­etly shear­ing away their trade­mark sto­ry­telling in favour of di­rect ap­peals from the heart. Their lat­est al­bum, I’ll Be Your Girl, is gal­vanised not by man­dolin but steely synths and Peter Hook basslines.

Although this new ap­proach makes up al­most half the 17-strong set list, the band skil­fully sift through their back cat­a­logue. The lofty mu­si­cal the­atre of The Queen’s Re­buke, sung art­fully by back­ing Kelly Ho­gan, plunges into fuzzy, dirty gui­tars for Sev­ered; the text­book, wordy O Va­len­cia! plateaus to the iso­lated plea and soar­ing, cathar­tic pop of Once in My Life, a high­light.

The band are im­pres­sively re­spon­sive to one an­other de­spite Meloy’s ad­mis­sion that they’re jet-lagged. “But we’ve been here four days, it’s no longer an ex­cuse,” he ad­mits. Drum­mer John Moen’s pas­sion­ate play­ing is watched with awe by Meloy, who is equally benef­i­cent to multi-in­stru­men­tal­ist Jenny Con­lee as she swaps be­tween ac­cor­dion, key­boards and synths. The singer him­self keeps a steady hand on a bois­ter­ous crowd. He chides the front row for look­ing at the set list pinned to the floor at his feet and not be­ing re­cep­tive enough to the in­clu­sion of “a min­ing song”, Rox in the Box.

Meloy also takes great pains to ex­plain the con­cept of au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion. Although the days of De­cem­berists shows fea­tur­ing au­di­ence re­quests drawn from a bingo cage and band mem­bers fight­ing fic­ti­tious bat­tles are over, crowd in­volve­ment still plays an im­por­tant part in their gigs, from the call-and-re­sponse re­frain of skewed nurs­ery rhyme We’re All Gonna Die to the shrill scream elicited to evoke the feel­ing of be­ing eaten by a whale dur­ing The Mariner’s Re­venge, which fea­tures bass player Nate Query us­ing his cello as a pre­tend pad­dle and an in­flat­able beast be­ing passed through the au­di­ence.

Meloy, too, has his own imp­ish fun. Dur­ing a segue from O Va­len­cia! into Drac­ula’s Daugh­ter, the singer di­gresses into an anti-Trump di­a­tribe. “He’s gonna get thrown in jail, he’s gonna rot in jail,” he sings glee­fully. The self-pro­fessed Mor­ris­sey fan uses the space dur­ing the vault­ing chords of Once in My Life to in­dulge in the words of his hero and sings an ex­cerpt from the Smiths’ Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want. Judg­ing by the clam­orous re­sponse for the De­cem­berists’ blend of old favourites and new vi­sion, Meloy’s prayer might just have been heard.

Dur­ing The Mariner’s Re­venge, the crowd is en­cour­aged to scream as if be­ing eaten by a whale

Di­rect ap­peals to the heart … The De­cem­berists

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