First and foremost The Decemberists are a top class and polished band, packed with fine musicians and playing attractive songs to adoring audiences. They have a wide ranging appeal and a charismatic frontman capable of harnessing adulation. Commercial success has been forthcoming and many who attended this sell out gig in Birmingham Institute’s premier hall would have headed home with their fan status enhanced. The new album, which broke the band’s longest barren recording spell of four years, is a decent buy with many tunes that attract several repeat listens. Yet there was something missing on a personal basis which will prevent this gig getting close to the end of year top 20.
Much debate preceded the decision to attend this gig as it was a definite nudge into the mainstream and far more to the crowded centre than a majority of the eighty plus shows attended each year. However The Decemberists cross my path on numerous occasions as an influential US band flirting with a folk and Americana agenda and have certainly warranted this level of advanced scrutiny. Perhaps it goes with the territory of operating within the circles of major labels and well populated secured fan bases, but there was a safe, conservative and predictable aura to the show. Ultimately there was a bypass in radiated connection and an omission of lower case soul which left the show a little short.
Maybe there was a little too much expectation for the band to live up to my roots agenda and even sporadic appearances of double bass, banjo and pedal steel had only a minimal effect. What was exceptional and most impressive about the show was the contribution of Jenny Conlee with almost all the musical highlights coming from her wonderful keyboard playing, accordion and brief excursion on heavy percussion. In contrast, while band leader Colin Meloy did little wrong, there was an almost continual chant-like feel to his vocals which resulted in an ebbing away of any belief in him as a performer. Of course this was in contradiction to the response from the audience which further questioned the decision to attend, although satisfying a curiosity at first hand never renders attending a gig worthless.
As you would expect from a show lasting two hours and containing 19 songs, considerable focus was on the new album and pleasure was derived from listening to songs such as ‘Cavalry Captain’, ‘Philomena’ and ‘Carolina Low’ live. In fact right across the evening there was not a moment where any track allowed you drift even if there was a continual search for what could make this band special. What thoughts did cross the mind was a similarity to several bands over the last few years making it in a big way on both sides of the Atlantic with magnificent credentials but getting a mixed reaction in effect.
There is no hesitation in recommending getting a hold of WHAT A TERRIBLE WORLD, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL WORLD but in contrast to many Decemberists devotees the band fell short on a personal level, probably guided by too much emphasis on the centre ground. This view is probably founded by seeing a cavalcade of roots artists plying their trade on a similar, but all too often smaller, scale with the absolute ability to transmit their integrity and belief to an audience. While possessing many laudable merits, The Decemberists came up a little short against this measure.