Review by Andrew Lindsay with Photos by Nikki Rodgers

December has come early to Manchester. A chilly rain-sodden Monday evening can do nothing to dent the party spirit of the Christmas Market revellers in adjoining Albert Square. Panto season is also in full swing in the Albert Hall, courtesy of American visitors from Portland, Oregon.

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Portlanders are performing here for at least the third time in almost as many months (see earlier reviews of Stephen Malkmus and Laura Veirs). They are “sister cities”, according to band leader Colin Meloy, “similarly gloomy” with “rain glazed windows” although the truth is that the former is significantly wetter than the latter.

Against an impressive backdrop of a skull with swirling eyes surrounded by serpents the band enter to the accompaniment ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. For the stage play Greig intended the tune as a dream like fantasy to mark Peer Gynt’s entrance into the troll king’s hall. It is an appropriate choice for The Decemberists as they embark on an evening of whimsy, fantasy and irony.

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The core band: bassist and cellist Nate Query with a tie and waistcoat looking for all the world like he has just dashed in from the offices of KPMG around the corner; Chris Funk on guitars and mandolin in bizarre Chinese style Fu Manchu outfit; Jenny Conlee on accordion, piano, organ resembling a very young Angela Merkel and drummer John Moen and lead singer and benign dictator Colin Meloy as themselves. All sport embroidered patches on their outfits created by Meloy’s spouse Carson Ellis who also designed the psychedelic Revolver-ish cover of new album I’ll Be Your Girl which unsurprisingly forms the bulk of tonight’s set.

A rapturous reception greets the anthemic opener ‘Don’t Carry It All’ from the band’s best-selling album The King Is Dead (Morrissey take a bow). It is a glorious start with Meloy’s harmonica solo reminiscent of Tom Petty’s ‘You Don’t Know How It Feels’. Next up is something familiar from fifteen years ago: ‘Billy Liar’. About school truancy, the song is an upbeat foot tapper with some jolly music hall piano. We are only into the second song of the evening and already Meloy is conducting the audience in an extended sing-a-long bringing into the fold the loyal faithful sardined into the stalls; the loungers in the bars and the few ‘undecideds’ sat with folded arms at the back of the circle. This is masterful stagecraft and outstanding entertainment. Most artists would wait until the encore before risking such a move but such is Meloy’s confidence – not to mention years of practice – that he carries it off with aplomb and achieves complete audience engagement.

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‘Sucker’s Prayer’, the first song to be played from the new album, is immediately recognised by the partisan crowd and the darkness of the lyrics (e.g. “I want to throw my body in the river and drown”) quickly evolves into a joyous sing-a-long suicide song. Anyone unfamiliar with the band would feel that they had just gate-crashed someone else’s apocalyptic dance party.

Backing singer Kelly Hogan adds warmth to ‘Make You Better (Butter?)’ with its mid-life refrain of “We’re not so starry-eyed anymore”. Prior to ‘Calamity Song’ Meloy somehow works in a breakfast time plea to his young son (“Hank eat your oatmeal”). Quite bonkers but endearing nonetheless and symbolic of the show.

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Gladioli is all that is missing from The Smiths’ inspired ‘The Sporting Life’; the debt acknowledged with a snippet from ‘This Charming Man’. The swooning lovelorn delivery underpinned by a shuffling drum beat and the audience’s handclaps. ‘The Crane Wife 1 and 2’ takes the tempo down a notch. Based on an old Japanese folktale it starts softly with the focus on the story before reaching a stomping rocking finale as Hogan assumes main vocal duties and Conlee and Funk bash out a mellow yellow groove on organ and guitar respectively.

‘Severed’ is terrific and further contributes to the diverse styles on offer tonight. Powered by Conlee’s synthesizer and two other keyboards it has the flavour of New Order (yes more Manchester influences) but is still ‘Decemberist-y’. The crowd roar along to ‘We All Die Young’ which is not dissimilar to a football chant emanating from the Stretford End. Subtle it ain’t but it is thoroughly engaging.

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The expletive rich lyrics for ‘Ben Franklin’s Song’ were written by the creator of the hit musical Hamilton but were not used in the show. Lin-Manuel Miranda gave the song to Meloy because he judged it “Decemberist-y” which it incontrovertibly is. The high humour quotient continues with ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ (“the worst song I ever wrote”). This prefaces the jangly life affirming ‘O Valencia’ (another murder ballad with a catchy tune). With his Morrissey moves, Meloy confirms his status as a master showman as he rather rashly crawls along the edge of the vertiginous stage. For reasons best known to himself Chris Funk dons a splattered white cape. Make of it what you will but this is a band that doesn’t take itself too seriously… until the next two songs.

The impassioned delivery of ‘Once In My Life’ is followed by the first encore: a sombre musically complex reading of a Slavic folktale about a water sprite who lures men to their death. Introduced with dramatic piano the lengthy narrative is classic Fairport Convention folk-rock remade and remodelled for 2018.

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The show closes with a ten minute plus rendition of ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’, a ballad that depends on each member of the audience screaming as if being swallowed by a whale. As the story progresses members of the band act out their deaths while a giant inflatable whale swims over the top (in more ways than one) of the crowd. It is pure panto for adults and it is glorious fun.

Addendum: I had barely heard of The Decemberists until tonight’s show. They were recommended to me because I like Fleet Foxes. In fact they are not much like Fleet Foxes. Their diverse eccentric repertoire echoes countless bands but tonight’s performance is utterly unique. Go see them and dive into their back catalogue. I know I will.

Setlist: Don’t Carry It All; Billy Liar; Sucker’s Prayer; Make You Better; Cutting Stone; Calamity Song; The Sporting Life; The Crane Wife 1&2; The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing; Tripping Along; Severed; We All Die Young; Ben Franklin’s Song; Dracula’s Daughter/O Valencia!; Once In My Life. Encores: Rusalka, Rusalka/The Wild Rushes; The Mariner’s Revenge Song.

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