Colin Meloy voice’s – with the rounded vowels of an 18th century English sea dog – is the only sound in the room aside from his guitar as The Decemberists play the first song from their latest album, live for the first time. It’s every bit as evocative as on record, especially pared down to just this. When the band join for the second half the sound is crystal and warm and it could be teeing us up for a faultless evening, but there’s many a slip twixt a cup and a lip and first-night gremlins were waiting in the wings.
Vicar St is fair packed with a polite-looking, but heckle-ready crowd cheered into early life by the opener. The band are a playful bunch, leaning a little into a carnival spirit of gurning and exaggerated moves – all befitting the mood of the music. It’s a buoyant beginning. The march-along ’16 Military Wives’ cuts straight in with some familiar pleasure while Meloy’s banter references our Natural History Museum and Morrissey in the same bizarre tableau. We relish the joy of hearing the first songs from their Magnum Opus The Crane Wife, singing along loudly with lyrics we didn’t know we knew.
Yet it is lyrics that seems to trip up Meloy. We count four occasions where he forgot or missed a line, laughing along with the first two but then it becomes a little sloppy. There are also just a few too many of those dangerous luls between songs. With a crowd already on shouty form, the act of immersion you get with good live music is lost in these moments as the cold sweat of reality kicks back in and you wonder if you paid this months gas bill.
Unfortunately there are a series of guitar problems too. One acoustic seems to give up its desire for amplification. Another is handed out by the tech either tuned wrong or not tuned at all. Add a few songs of Meloy with his back to the crowd, noodling with his amp, and you have a rehearsal, not a proper gig. Yet despite these issues, there’s a lingering memory of lifting moments. Many of these moments come from hearing the new songs intense and bold – ‘Make You Better’ brought a few tingles. ‘Lake Song’ too, and make a revisit to the new album afterwards a refreshing thing.
As the glitches subside, the final run brings us to ‘O Valencia’s Romeo-and-Juliette hands-up singalong, a pastoral first encore of ‘June Song’ into What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’s plaintive closer ‘A Beginning Song’ and you couldn’t but be smiling. But the real theatre is their second encore, the 10 minute ‘Mariner’s Revenge Song’. Somewhat ludicrous with its crowd screaming and band-collapsing, it is still rather amusing to roll through.
A concert better in hindsight than its somewhat scrappy actuality, you imagine as the tour goes on this will iron out but one thing we can say we got that we wouldn’t expect any other city to get – an impromptu chorus of Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’. Maybe next time, however, we deserve a well rehearsed band.
The Decemberists photographed for State by Mark McGuinness