Given that the Decemberists are a band frequently described as exemplars of college rock, the University of London Union – as its name suggests, a hub of student life in London – seems a not inappropriate choice of venue for the southernmost and final British concert of their “Jaunt Across the Pond” tour. The tour is to promote the band’s latest LP, Picaresque, the first of the band’s three albums to date to receive a full release in the UK. The audience, however, appear well acquainted with the Oregon sextet’s earlier works, greeting the opening lines of The Legionnaire’s Lament, Billy Liar and others with joyfully enthusiastic recognition, to the apparent surprise of frontman Colin Meloy, who is shouted down for suggesting Picaresque might be better known to them than earlier works.
Meloy’s charisma onstage is impressive, particularly for a man whose most physically striking feature is a mesmerisingly wayward tuft of hair on the side of his head. Within a few minutes, his hold on the crowd complete, he is bounding around the stage grinning like a seven-year-old on a crisps-and-lemonade binge. In a refreshing contrast to the slightly arrogant attitude of those performers who prefer to drink in a crowd’s adoration while feigning indifference, Meloy genuinely appears to be having a good time.
This impression contributes to the positive atmosphere of the concert. The band’s performance is practically spot on – well rehearsed without being too crisp, giving every impression that the performers are enjoying themselves. The lush chords and vividly descriptive lyrics of The Infanta – both the first song of the evening and the opening track on Picaresque – blend into July, July!, a song surely only prevented from being a sing-a-long favourite by the brevity of its chorus. The Engine Driver, a song that sounds unremarkable on CD seems more beautiful and poignant live. The extra flourishes also work well. A violin solo during The Bagman’s Gambit, a tale of espionage and romance, segues with glorious randomness into the theme from Indiana Jones. Even better is the pantomime-like interlude during tongue-in-cheek Victorian-era number The Chimbley Sweep, in which Meloy brings the entire band to a halt and then, with them lying motionless on the stage, motions the audience to the ground as well, before the band strikes up once again with the chorus, the crowd rising as it does so. Again the reason for this is somewhat less than obvious, but Meloy’s mischievous grin is easily enough persuasion.
The evening does not quite go off without a hitch – there is a delay a few songs in while Meloy attempts, ultimately unsuccessfully, to re-tune his twelve-string, during which time it falls to guitarist Chris Funk and an apparently impromptu comic turn by an audience member (possibly a plant) to keep the crowd entertained before, after one final song, the offending instrument is abandoned. There are a couple of more metaphorical false notes as well – together with Meloy’s aforementioned suggestion of a lack of familiarity on the audience’s part with much of the Decemberists’ oeuvre, the self-consciously unsubtle mention of the release date of single Sixteen Military Wives is an unwelcome touch. Both seem to hint at a conviction that the band’s profile in the UK is far lower than is the case in reality, an interesting inversion of the stereotypical “Do you know who I am?” attitude of the minor celebrity.
Overall though, the concert is undeniably a success, with Meloy’s skills as a showman the driving force behind this, albeit ably supported by the rest of the band. The Bandit Queen, from the forthcoming album, which Meloy performs solo, is prefaced by an evocation of a camping trip in the Rocky Mountains, a location which is swiftly revised to the Lake District “with our copies of Coleridge under our arms” in response to audience heckles. The choice of The Mariner’s Revenge Song as a grand finale for the encore was inspired – an epic story song coming in at close to nine minutes, it barely seems to last two. Here’s hoping they come back soon.