“We know, we know, we belong to you. You built your lives around us.” declares Colin Meloy on ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’, the opening track of The Decemberists’ first ever Brixton Academy show (which, incidentally, is a sell-out). For a band named after a Russian revolutionary sect, who specialise in the non-populist genre of “literary folk rock”, their ascent to Brixton only becomes a foregone conclusion once bearing witness to their live show where musical variety and showmanship is king and subject matter is cut from a non-traditional yet multi-layered cloth.
The prog rock stylings on ‘The Island’ and tribal drum thumping extravaganza ‘The Rake’s Song’ (“Don’t cheer that one. It’s about infanticide. You should be ashamed of yourselves”) inject ambition and intensity into the performance, but do not detract from the sheer loveliness of the lighter acoustic moments like ‘Los Angeles, I’m Yours’ which elevate Meloy’s voice to a place which both soothes and shoots tingles down the spine.
With a lot of the set including cuts from the new album ‘What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World’, a highlight comes in the form of ‘Philomena’ which sees Meloy toy with schoolboy sexuality behind a fizzy 50s-style melodic façade. Lyrics like “Open your linen lap and let me go down, down down” and “All that I wanted in the world/was just to live to see a naked girl” sound less dirty and more playful thanks to the candy-coated coos of his swaying female backing singers and its delicious doo-wop charm.
Charming is the operative word for Meloy tonight as he gives a star turn in his own royal variety performance of sorts. When he jumbles his words to almost John Travolta proportions by calling the audience “shite briny people”, he runs with it as a recurring joke between songs before going on to play the crowd an endearing ditty about his young son’s hunger strike called ‘Hank, Eat Your Oatmeal’, even throwing in a line ‘Hank, Eat Your Naan Bread’ especially for our curry-loving nation.
’16 Military Wives’ sees him directing the audience to sing a round of “lah-dee-dahs” in different dynamics: “Now whisper it” he asks before whispering “Now think it!” and scolding the crowd gleefully for laughing instead of thinking.
With all of this fun, games and music working together, it is perhaps unsurprising that the band come back for two encores and the second time, are equipped with the strangest request for the final song of the night, the swashbuckling sea shanty ‘The Mariner’s Revenge’: “scream like you’re being swallowed by a whale”. It’s pretty much like pantomime with a double-bass bow doubling up as a sword and members of the audience thinking “It’s behind you” as one of the drummer’s shoes is inexplicably duct taped to his kit while he hops around manically in his quest for it.
Headlining Brixton Academy may have been a first for this unlikely folk pack from Portland, Oregon, but like the Mariner, they came, they sought and they conquered. If tonight’s triumphant performance is anything to go by, they’ve booked their day trip to Brixton as a first-class open-return.
Photos: Carolina Faruolo