Live / Reviews

LIVE: The Decemberists + Serafina Steer, Manchester Academy 17/02/15

©2015 Francesca Nottola

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The show is introduced by the delightful Serafina Steer and her harp from Peckham, London. She (and The Decemberists too) would have deserved a theatre setting for her delicate voice and elegant instrument, so in my head I replace the cold austere look of the Academy with an old wooden theatre with red velvet-covered seats, mirrors and chandeliers. Steer’s quirkiness is fascinating. She is ironic and her harp playing enchanting. My favourite moment is when she recites a poem just before the end of her unfortunately brief set (only half an hour). I’m definitely left with a lot of curiosity about this artist. And if the harp makes you think of Joanna Newsom, well, be aware that they have very little in common and they are both awesome but in very different ways.

At 21:00 Colin Meloy, frontman of The Decemberists, appears on a dimly lit stage with an acoustic guitar, quickly followed by the rest of the band: Jenny Conlee (voice, keyboards and accordion); Nate Query (double bass, electric bass); John Moen (drums, percussion; he briefly collaborated with Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks before being replaced by Janet Weiss); Chris Funk (who exhibits uncountable guitars of all sorts and string number). The Decemberists are accompanied on this tour by singer and songwriter Kelly Hogan (Neko Case, Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy, Archer Prewitt, Giant Sand, Iron and Wine, Tortoise) on vocals and tambourine and Chicago-based musician Nora O’Connor  (Andrew Bird, Iron and Wine, Wilco, Neko Case), here on vocals and bass duties.

The notorious hipsterness that characterises Portland, Oregon, home of the band, is affectionately mocked in TV series Portlandia (starring Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag) and is celebrated in the declaration – by Portland Mayor Charlie Hales – of January 20th 2015 as ‘Decemberists Day’, because The Decemberists “embody the Portland values of passion, engagement, and communitarianism with the Portland aesthetic of homegrown, forthright, slightly hippie, and often bespectacled glory.” The date was chosen because the band released their latest and seventh studio album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World on this day.

Colin Meloy starts addressing his Academy audience with the ironic ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’, followed by the upbeat ‘Cavalry Captain’, both from the latest release. As fashionable these days, The Decemberists are impeccably stylish, with jackets, waistcoats and ties. Even the drums are elegantly decorated with the lion designed by artist (and Meloy’s partner) Carson Ellis. Meloy jokes about the fact that he wishes he could have been in Manchester in the grim days of his teenage years. The love for the British mother land is apparent, and emerges also in ‘Lake Song’, obviously indebted to Nick Drake’s ‘Pink Moon’, which appears on the latest release (but will not be played tonight). Colin Meloy also recorded a Morrissey covers solo EP in 2005 (Colin Meloy sings Morrissey).

Next up is ‘Down By The Water’ (nothing to do with P.J. Harvey), followed by ‘Calamity Song’, both from the 2011 album The King Is Dead (more Smiths references here), written – Meloy explains – to induce his son to eat some food,  the way most of his songs start out. The show continues with the haunting ‘Sleepless’, written in 2009 as a contribution to the compilation  Dark Was the Night to raise funds for AIDS awareness, and ‘On The Bus Mall’, from Picaresque (2005). A very enjoyable gig up to this point, but this pleasant melodic reassuring set has not conquered me yet, although I do enjoy a lot listening to Meloy’s voice and accent. Then, all of sudden, many of my favourites pile up. Interestingly, Meloy introduces this second part as the ‘adult portion of the show’, which starts with the saucy 1950s themed and Paul Anka-styled ‘Philomena’, from the latest album. Meloy informs us that he had written the song before the film Philomena was released in 2013 and that, to date, he is not sure whether the film has been good for the song or not. ‘The Wrong Year’ follows, also from What a Terrible World…. , and is enriched live by Conlee’s accordion.

The rest of the audience seems to share my feelings that the best is yet to come, as it is only when the long-titled ‘The Island: Come & See / The Landlord’s Daughter / You’ll Not Feel The Drowning’ (The Crane Wife, 2007) arrives that the crowd starts cheering loudly. One of the many Decemberists’ marine-themed songs, this song has a 1970s/progressive feel to it and, strangely, makes me think of Black Sabbath and Jethro Tull. Despite the general friendly atmosphere in the hall and the warmth shown by the lead singer, it is only after 45 minutes that the demanding Mancunian crowd eventually surrenders to the band, inducing Meloy to comment on the beautiful smiley crowd and to invite us to introduce ourselves to our neighbours and show the proverbial ‘conviviality of the Northern people’.  Next up is ‘Los Angeles, I’m Yours’ (Her Majesty The Decemberists, 2003), followed by the desert bluesy ‘Carolina Low’. After giggling and rambling about the word ‘jag’ (‘take it home with you tonight!’), Meloy gifts us with the romantic ‘Make You Better’ (in which he cheekily slips a bit of ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’) that triggers kisses in a couple close to me and my friends. What a beautiful world!

It’s 22.10 and I’ve lost count of the guitars that have appeared on stage in the hands of Colin Meloy and Chris Funk. It’s time for the dark ‘The Rake’s Song’, that turns the stage into a witches Sabbat, with red lights, two floor toms wildly beaten by Moen and Conlee and the whole Academy clapping along flamenco-style. The next song is ‘The Legionnaire’s Lament’, from the first album Castaways and Cutouts, followed by ‘16 Military Wives’ (Picaresque, 2005), which generates the best audience singing I have ever heard. The last song before the encore is the tragic ‘O Valencia’, a Romeo and Juliet-like story about two lovers torn apart by belonging to different gangs. The Decemberists are able to produce an impressive mini orchestra sound, although it is Meloy’s voice that dominates the scene. After a generous hour and a half the band leaves the stage, while the now excited crowd reclaims more tales of sailors, soldiers and princesses. After only a minute the band comes back for the encore with the melancholic Neil Young-ish ‘12/17/12’ and  ‘A Beginning Song’, both from the latest album. The band gives thanks and leaves the stage for a second time and comes back after two minutes to propose a Decemberists’ classic: ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’, that concludes virtually every gig since its release in 2006. And, as in every gig, we are required to ‘scream like [we] are being swallowed by a whale’, an instruction facilitated by guitarist Chris Funk who imitates the whale’s jaws with his hands and terrifying facial expression.

The crowd is by now completely ingested by the Decemberists’ music whale, clapping, singing and screaming, as required. Jenny Conlee gives a terrific theatrical performance with her singing and her accordion, while John Moen marks the repetitive rhythm of the song on a floor drum with a jingle stick and Nate Query elegantly plays his double bass with a bow. All the Academy attendees oscillate to the sea shanty like sailors on a ship, providing quite a unique and spectacular view. The highlight of the evening is – needless to say – the moment in which we pretend we are being swallowed by a whale.

The show ends at 23:00, with drummer Moen throwing his drumsticks into the air. Two full hours of genuine entertainment provided by amazing, well-assorted musicians. The Decemberists are funny and they enjoy interacting with their audience. Their combination of unusual literary lyrics, humour and great stage performance makes them a real pleasure to see live. Don’t miss them!

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