The Decemberists - The Institute, Birmingham, 18th February 2015

The Decemberists – The Institute, Birmingham, 18th February 2015


One of the most striking things about Portland’s finest musical export is frontman Colin Meloy’s sense of playfulness. Crowd interaction plays a big part at The Decemberists‘ shows, from Meloy’s highly entertaining between song patter, through sharp ripostes (“That was the loudest song request I have ever HEARD”) to the hilarious call and response tune of ’16 Military Wives’, in which our illustrious leader rather surreally had the Brummie audience in the balcony seats adopting their best “posh” accents to do the ‘la-di-dah’s, for that is how the folk up in the gods are seen through the eyes of one of the greatest songwriters of the past fifteen years.

That was later though, so let’s rewind a few hours…

The Institute, formerly known as the HMV Institute, is easily one of my favourite venues on the live circuit, always attracting a lively crowd, and at the risk of sounding like a deluded old hippy, it’s extremely easy to “feel the love” there. Even better is the fact that it is situated just two minutes walk away from the famous Bull Ring shopping complex, and also from the city centre itself, so whatever you want to do before the gig – have a meal, go out on the lash or whatever, you can do it all in one fell swoop and still make it for the support act with plenty of time remaining.

Oh yes…the support act…

I had attended the show with a long term acquaintance of mine, a semi-professional photographer whom I shall call purely by his surname of Randall, simply because it sounds more rock ‘n’ roll, and with whom I have had many disagreements over the years about the merits and demerits (is that even a word?) of various performers. All too often, he will dismiss something as “dull” after one listen, which irks me somewhat, so I paid little heed to the inevitable “dull” comment after London harpist Serafina Steer had played/sung a couple of ethereal, emollient mood pieces to, it has to be said, a very appreciative audience. Randall was still gabbling some sulky nonsense about Steer being “arguably the most boring support act I’ve ever seen”, so I resolved at that moment that I was going to give her free reign of the orchard for a while longer yet.
So what is there to say about Serafinazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz… Where am I? Oh right yes, I’m reviewing the harpy bird aren’t I? There’s a sort of ambienzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

To be fair, I am unfamiliar with Steer’s work, and maybe if I was, I would have been entranced. Truth is though, I was more preoccupied with the alarming number of people who passed by me who looked worryingly like characters from ‘Breaking Bad’. A mean looking Mike and scary Gus-alike certainly made their presence felt, and I’m not sure if I was hallucinating (exactly what DID they put in that pizza earlier?) or whether I’d created the ‘Where’s Walter?’ game in my head to pass the time until the main event. Maybe Randall was right on this occasion.

I’d already looked at a few of The Decemberists’ set lists before tonight, so I was aware that they were likely to start with the latest album’s inaugural track ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’. What I WASN’T prepared for though, was just how close to the record these songs would sound live, having clearly been painstakingly honed to perfection over the last eighteen months or so. I even found myself craning my neck to see whether someone was operating a turntable behind the curtain, as ‘Cavalry Captain’ followed ‘The Singer…’ in an equally faultless manner, as per their parent album.

‘Down By The Water’ is clearly a fans’ favourite, judging by the reaction it got immediately after the first chords were struck, and the evening was just great song after great song, maybe even classic song after classic song, with Meloy’s frivolous behaviour at the forefront of everything the band did, not least the “spoof” intro which preceded ‘Calamity Song’ and focused on his most recent addition to the Meloy household and the singer’s attempts to feed junior.

It’s not ALL about the frontman though, and the superb – and multi-talented – Jenny Conlee must be singled out for praise for her ability to perform with a startling array of musical instruments and so much positive energy. Conlee, as many fans will know, was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2011, but by the end of that year she had fought and beaten the illness, having been in remission since. So effervescent is Conlee, that you wonder whether the trauma she went through back then put a different perspective on her outlook on life for the better. She certainly seemed to thrive, and after the gig, she (and all the other members of the band, it should be noted) were as warm and responsive to their fans as you could possibly have hoped.

The evening having flown by, The Decemberists ended, as they so often do, with their second encore of the eccentric sea shanty that is ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the entire audience obey-the-man-on-the-stage to the extent that I did here, as they were required to scream loudly when given the signal, that everyone has been swallowed by a whale. I think I may even have heard a screech from Randall. Yes, even HE thought it was a brilliant gig.

‘Isn’t It A Lovely Night?’ asked The Decemberists on their 2009 album ‘Hazards Of Love’. Ha. Well THAT’S understatement of the year…

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