Or at least Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The Decemberists last played at the London venue in November of 2004, and judging by the band members’ awe-inspired glances to the top tiers of this venerable Victorian concert hall and Colin Meloy’s glowing praise of the crowd throughout the night, the band was happy to be back.
All three balcony levels and the venue’s floor were packed. As The Decemberists took the stage the crowd roared, and then absolute silence reigned until Mr. Meloy strummed the unmistakable opening chords of The Crane Wife 3 on the 12 string electric-acoustic guitar that he was to use almost exclusively throughout the night. John Moen’s frenetic yet tender syncopated drumming brought the other performers into the mix and the show was underway. As the band blended carefully into The Island, fans exchanged glances wondering if a live run-through of The Crane Wife was in store. Jumping quickly into Billy Liar from the plaintive closing chords of You’ll Not Feel The Drowning dispelled these suspicions and the house now buzzed with a previously suppressed excitement as the entire standing section began dancing about. The energy level remained high as the band went from strength to strength with fan favourites We Both Go Down Together, The Engine Driver, and Yankee Bayonet. Addressing the audience, Meloy was soft-spoken yet eloquent and didn’t shy away from sprinkling praise on the crowd, variously referring to the assemblage of Londoners and a substantial number of American ex-pats as “trendy”, “savvy” and “a fantastic audience”. Between bouts of running around on stage, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk encouraged the crowd to clap along.
The down tempo Shankhill Butchers provided the crowd a break from dancing, if not singing along, but this respite was to be short-lived. After a little banter with members of the audience, Colin Meloy choreographed a funky calisthenics intermission including stretches and jumping to a bass-driven beat. This served well to prepare everyone for O Valencia!, likely the overall crowd favourite, and the rollicking 16 Military Wives. Like an eccentric Maestro, Meloy split the floor in two sections (physically) and incorporated the hall’s three balconies as separate choir sections for the song’s “La-di-da-di-da-didi-didi-da” refrains. Gesticulating wildly, under his direction each section of the divided audience attempted to overpower the other, ultimately overlapping thanks to Meloy’s signaling and cooperatively creating a beautiful and powerful ending to the song. Meloy appeared to be extremely pleased with the outcome. “I think I even heard some harmonies up there”, he noted, referring to the seemingly distant third tier balcony.
After all the excitement, The Crane Wife 1’s gentle melody was received with quiet appreciation. A droning melodica noted the beginning of Sons & Daughters and the crowd predicted with apprehension that the show was drawing to a close. However, the night’s performance was far from over. Boldly enlisting the help of audience members, Meloy commandeered several fans to help complete the song. Venue security hoisted the lucky few over the barriers and onto the stage as both band and audience began chanting, “hear all the bombs fade away”. This went on for several minutes until the performers disappeared, leaving their fledgling apprentices on stage and the audience screaming for more.
After an obligatory few minutes of floor pounding, chanting, screaming and general remonstrations of “one more song”, the band reappeared in full and began their first encore set with Eli, The Barrowboy. The crowd seemed suitably impressed by the performance of this somber number; screams of “Eli!” had been heard from all sections of the audience throughout the show. Meloy had promised “special surprises” earlier in the evening and these surprises appeared in the form of guest performances by Robyn Hitchcock and Mike Scott (of The Waterboys fame). At the close of the encore set Meloy confessed: “that essentially is my 16 year old self’s rock fantasy pornography. Let that sit in your mind for a while and carry you home.” Fortunately, it would be A Cautionary Song that would end the night and carry us all home.
Just three members returned for the one-song second encore; Meloy on acoustic guitar, Jenny Conlee on accordion and Nate Query on upright bass. “I get a sense that you are a kind of seedy lot”, Meloy proclaimed, before launching into their final song of the evening amidst wild cheers from the crowd. A Cautionary Song was interrupted midway through for a reenactment of the American War of Independence. “The Decembersits’ Travelling Players” made their way through the crowd searching for recruits; John Moen played the role of leader of the British redcoats (to much acclaim), Chris Funk was loudly booed for representing the Americans, and Jenny Conlee assembled her group of Native Americans. Unlike the actual historical version, the reenactment ended with the arrival of a meteorite that “smote” all involved.
This last song was the sole representative from Castaways and Cutouts (still my favourite Decemberists album) and the only Her Majesty track to made an appearance was Billy Liar, which was extremely well-received by the then-boisterous audience. I got the feeling surveying the crowd and speaking with other attendees that the majority of the audience was largely familiar only with material from The Crane Wife. But no matter, as both the band and crowd were in top form, making for an enjoyable experience for new and diehard fans alike.
“Thanks for being such a great audience, you’ve been fantastic”, Colin Meloy earnestly imparted as the band ambled offstage.
No, thank you, Decemberists.
-Andrew (the one in London)
The Decemberists, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
February 8, 2007
1. The Crane Wife 3
2. The Island: Come and See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel The Drowning
3. Billy Liar
4. We Both Go Down Together
5. The Engine Driver
6. Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)
7. Shankhill Butchers
8. O Valencia!
9. 16 Military Wives
10. The Crane Wife 1
11. Sons & Daughters
12. Eli, The Barrowboy
13. Madonna Of The Wasps (with Robyn Hitchcock)
14. Fisherman's Blues (with Mike Scott of The Waterboys)
15. A Cautionary Song (with American War of Independence reenactment)
The Decemberists - The Engine Driver
The Decemberists - Eli, The Barrowboy