Remember when you were young, and going to concerts was such a rarity that you would look forward to it for weeks, maybe months, watching that date on the calendar slowly creep closer, with such anticipation? That’s how I am with my favourite band, The Decemberists, even now. Whereas most of the time I can barely remember what shows I have coming up more than a week in advance, I ALWAYS know when The Decemberists are coming. In a couple of months… next month… THIS month… next week… TONIGHT! It’s finally here!
Why the anticipation? Well, something magical happens at EVERY Decemberists show I ever saw.
In Atlanta in 2005, they played The Tain EP, from start to finish.
At Osheaga in 2009, it was The Hazards Of Love that got the same treatment.
In Manchester, England, also in 2005 (yeah, 2005 was a good year…), they played my favourite song The Legionnaires Lament.
In Los Angeles in 2015, in the glorious surroundings of the Greek Theatre, they played the wonderful Los Angeles, I’m Yours.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Before a note is even played, I already know it’s going to be an amazing night.
It seems like Eleanor Friedberger isn’t having such a great day though. Midway through her set, the Fiery Furnaces frontwoman explains how her Subaru broke down in a western suburb of the city, so “I’ll be around all night if you can find it in your heart to help me pay for a new transmission.” Ouch. It’s a well-received 30 minutes, about 2/3 just her and a guitar, and 1/3 her singing over backtracks almost karaoke-style, with My Mistakes going down particularly well (which is 7 years old now, crazy!).
Originally booked for MTelus, the show was moved to Théatre Corona about a month ago, presumably due to slower-than-anticipated ticket sales. Obviously, that makes no sense to me (what is wrong with you, Montreal?!), but affords everyone here the chance to see the band in a much more intimate setting, which nobody will complain about. And the venue change is a masterstroke too. Instead of a half-full MTelus, it’s a packed Théatre Corona, which generates a much better atmosphere.
And what a show. It starts with 3 cuts from this year’s horrendously underrated I’ll Be Your Girl album, their 8th overall. Once In My Life starts off in a simple acoustic strum from frontman Colin Meloy, before stirring into life in conjunction with Blade Runner-esque synths, seamlessly blending in a verse of Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want by The Smiths, which share the same lyric as the song title. Your Ghost is much more frantic, with an almost medieval vibe in the “naa, na-na, na, naa!” backing vocals provided from the back of the stage. Sucker’s Prayer is the closest the band get to the country sound of their 2011 The King Is Dead record, and the harmonies are absolutely perfect.
The stunning Make You Better is the only offering of the set from the wonderful 2015 What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World record, and again, the harmonies are stunning. The song concludes in an epic guitar duel between Colin and Chris Funk, and as Colin sings the last few words, he coughs directly into the mic, eliciting laughs around the stage and venue alike. Afterwards, Colin apologizes “sorry I coughed DIRECTLY into the mic like that, the professional thing would have been to cough to the side… Oh well. I guess it fits the theme of getting better!”
You can hear a pin drop when Colin starts Cutting Stone unaccompanied with just his acoustic guitar, before the entire band joins in on the exact same note to spectacular effect, the prominent bass line provided by Nate Query really standing out in the live setting. Colin jokes afterwards: “people keep telling me to stop writing songs about cutting children…but that song is about emancipation! This next song, however, is quite literally about cutting people…” The song in question is Shankill Butchers, from the epic 2006 album The Crane Wife, about the extreme faction of the Ulster Volunteer Force in the 1970’s. Grizzly subject matter, but made to sound quite beautiful thanks to Colin’s simple guitar chords, Jenny Conlee’s accordion, and Chris Funk’s mandolin. This is my seventh time seeing them, and I’ve never heard this song live; that, right there, is a magical moment of the show that I will always remember. Absolutely wonderful.
The oldies keep coming too. Yankee Bayonet arrives next and remains the finest love song they ever wrote, a duet detailing the doomed relationship between a soldier who died in the Civil War (sung by Colin) and his wife/lover (Laura Vies on record, but covered immaculately by one of the backing singers tonight). The Bagman’s Gambit, from the stellar 2005 Picaresque record, comes next, and changes pace frequently, from just Colin plus acoustic guitar to a full-on wall of noise from the whole band, with various other paces in-between, and is followed by the goosebump-inducing Red Right Ankle, which, by contrast, exclusively consists of Colin, his guitar, and a single spotlight shining down on him.
Colin then pronounces “this is our State Of The Union song! Well, our Union, I’m not sure about Canada…” Arguably one of the most upbeat negative songs around, Everything Is Awful is the tongue-in-cheek polar opposite in terms of content of the Everything Is Awesome song from the Lego movie a few years back, and ends in hilarious fashion. As the crowd join in providing the “na na na” backing vocals of the outro, after singing the regular lyrics to the song, Colin starts throwing in random statements where the lyrics would usually be, such as “we have a white supremacist for a president!” and “there’s no telling how long this will go on!”, in reference to the ever-extending outro. When the finally bars do ring out, 2 confetti cannons blast out their contents over the crowd, much to Colin’s amusement: “wow, that was the most effective confetti cannon this tour! Some nights of the tour it looks like two little streams, but you all got covered!”
After a stirring Rox In The Box, which merges in a segment of the 1970 song Blackleg Miner by Steeleye Span, Colin puts on a harmonica holder, sparking cheers around the room. Colin jokes “you shouldn’t cheer when someone puts on a harmonica, you don’t know what you’ll get… it could be Mr Bojangles or Rocket Man!” What we actually get is the fantastic Down By The Water, and the cheers get even louder.
On new song Starwatcher, Jenny doubles up on drums with John Moen to provide an almost tribal beat, before double becomes triple on The Rake’s Song, with Chris Funk now joining the drum party, on the only offering from the stunning 2009 folk-rock opera The Hazards Of Love. The sound changes completely on new song Severed, which sees the sound becoming altogether more 80s electronica a la New Order, before being followed by the also negative-yet-upbeat We All Die Young. Beginning with a muffled drum beat much like the intro to Howling For You by The Black Keys, it quickly descends into a carnival, with Chris wielding a saxophone and Colin rattling a cowbell that he passes to a guy in the front to keep shaking. When the song reaches the final note, he points to the cowbell guy to shake it more furiously, but he’s slow to spot the prompt and is a little late. After the song, Colin jokes that he should show up to rehearsal more often…!
After closing out Oh Valencia! with a portion of Dracula’s Daughter (which Colin describes as the worst song he ever wrote), Colin invites Chris Walla out to the stage, formerly of Death Cab For Cutie and producer of several of the band’s releases, to join in on set closer Sons And Daughters. It’s a fitting end to the main set, the closing refrain of “hear all the bombs fade away” installing a sense of hope and optimism, especially relevant given the craziness of the world right now. The music drops out entirely at one point to leave just the crowd chanting those words, before stirring back to life to conclude the song.
The encore begins with new song Rusalka Rusalka / The Wild Rushes, the closest the band have gotten to a folk-rock opera since The Hazards Of Love, and is understandably almost operatic in nature in a live setting. Based on an old Slavic parable about a mermaid who seduces men, only to trick them into drowning, the first half of the song tells the tale of a man tricked into such a fate and is somewhat morose and melancholic. The second half tells of a second man who naively runs to the same fate, and is much more upbeat. The crowd roars in appreciation at the change-up, and it’s yet another magical moment in the set. Ben Franklin’s Song and the twee I’ll Be Your Girl close out the encore.
But that’s not all! No Decemberists show is complete without the epic sea shanty that is The Mariner’s Revenge Song, and sure enough, the band comes back for a second encore consisting of exactly that. Colin notes “Chris Walla didn’t want us to put this on the [Picaresque] record… maybe he was right!” Nope, he wasn’t! An undisputed highlight of The Decemberists repertoire, it features all the band coming to the front of the stage, including even drummer John, using just a floor tom. At the point in the song where Chris usually signals the crowd to scream in response to being eaten by the whale, the stage banner rises at the back of the stage and a door opens, revealing a huge inflatable whale that floats out and around the venue while the song breaks down for a while. It’s amazing and takes everyone by surprise. The whale eventually disappears back from whence it came, and the song resumes for its conclusion as both band and crowd sway left and right in unison. It’s all over after 2 truly monumental hours.
Its funny, there are many bands I liked around the same time as I discovered The Decemberists back in the early 2000s, but who I gradually became less and less interested in as time went on. Sometimes it’s the direction a band takes that loses you. Sometimes it’s the lack of any direction at all. And yet, after all these years, The Decemberists have my rapt attention. Every record is as strong as the next. Every live show is phenomenal. We may as well hand the Gig Of The Year award over right now because nothing is topping this in 2018. Who knows when it will be topped?
Possibly only the next time The Decemberists come to town…
Once In My Life / Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want (The Smiths cover)
Make You Better
Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)
The Bagman’s Gambit
Red Right Ankle
Everything is Awful
Rox in the Box (with “Blackleg Miner” interlude)
Down by the Water
The Rake’s Song
We All Die Young
O Valencia! (with “Dracula’s Daughter” interlude)
Sons & Daughters
Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes
Ben Franklin’s Song
I’ll Be Your Girl
The Mariner’s Revenge Song
Review – Simon Williams
Photos – Ashley MacPhee