I waited, with quaking, knee-knocking-and-head-fuzzy earnest for The Decemberists to take the stage; an anticipation that reverberated unanimously throughout the room. The O2 Academy in Glasgow — a venue that seemed impossibly large to this small town kid—was ready for its first dose of the merry band of indie rock logophiles in nearly 4 years. The arena seemed to be overwhelmingly populated with an older demographic of fans, an observation that made more sense after I considered that The Decemberists are celebrating almost 15 years of creating intricately worded, genre-transcending music. With collective fingers crossed, new and old fans alike waited to see if the Portland, Oregon-based group could entertain as well as advertised.
And did they ever deliver.
Frontman Colin Meloy — sporting a full beard and suit— kicked off the festivities solo with the delightfully self-aware anthem “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, fresh from the band’s newest record, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. The album peaked at number 7 on the Billboard 200, coming in on the heels of 2011’s The King is Dead, the first of the band’s work to debut at number 1. Featuring a simpler (but every bit as emotional) sound, the album yet includes a myriad of Decemberists staples, including a wide array of instrumentation, fancy vocabulary, clever double entendres, and a storytelling structure than occasionally dips into dark territory.
The live show managed to include a majority of songs off of the new album without feeling overbearing. Showing that they are indeed masters of the stage, Meloy and co. mixed in old favorites like “The Rake’s Song,” and “16 Military Wives,” alongside longer and more involved cuts (“The Island”, “Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)”). I found myself clapping and chanting raucously with the crowd one moment; the next, swaying and considering that while all my previous relationships may not have turned out well, at least I haven’t murdered anyone.
Meloy paced the show magnificently, conducting the crowd through interactive numbers (at one point, succeeding in silencing the entire venue by commanding the audience to think the lyrics) with a good helping of self-deprecating commentary to boot. For the last song of the main set, he proudly proclaimed to end on “The worst song I’ve ever written,” and proceeded to transition from the sadly hilarious “Dracula’s Daughter,” into the dark-but-catchy foot-tapper “O Valencia!”
While Meloy provided the starters, the rest of the Decemberists served up the meat. The ever talented Jenny Conlee lent voice and body to nearly every song in the set, starring on piano, accordion, and an instrument that I can only describe as a ten-inch kazoo with keys. Chris Funk played impeccably on guitar (and dobro, and mandolin, and banjo), Nate Query’s stand-up bass playing made me giddy, and all of it held together by the rhythm of drummer John Moen. Whether measured acoustic ballad or stirring sea shanty, The Decemberists proved to be all that I hoped and more.
And oh, the encores. With a slyness that I can only assume comes from years of performing or being from Oregon, The Decemberists treated the audience to not one, but two closing sets, finally going out with an exhilarating rendition of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” the seven-minute ballad that tells the tale of a womanizing roustabout meeting his just end…in the belly of a whale.
It’s this sort of playful, self-aware storytelling that makes The Decemberists so much fun; they are a must-see for anyone who enjoys a narrative-driven tunes, intelligent lyrics, an atmosphere of genuine enjoyment, or just wants to know what the hell a semaphore is.