Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Decemberists / Blind Pilot @ The Institute, Monday 7th March 2011

On a night that was cold enough to make the headliners really feel at home a particularly healthy crowd made it along to, I think I’m right in saying this, the band’s first ever Birmingham gig. Wow. Over ten years into their career and this is their first chance to sample the delights of the Rag Market, Mr Egg (re-opening soon oeuf fans!) and the Balti triangle. First up though opening act, Blind Pilot. All the way from The Decemberists’ home town of Portland, Oregon they’ve got a nicely chilled out folky feel, perhaps a little too chilled out for some of the audience tonight judging by the chatting, but there we go, that’s audiences for you. Some people obviously don’t get out much eh? A good job if you ask me...

For the uninitiated The Decemberists are, depending on their mood, a country...pop...folk...baroque band revolving around the genial Mr Colin Meloy. Less of a songwriter, more of a storyteller (it comes as no surprise to learn that he’s a ‘creative writing’ graduate) Colin fits more material into one of his tracks than the average Hollywood blockbuster these days, covering everything from historical events through to Irish mythology. REM and later period XTC are obvious touchstones (and acknowledged influences) and during tonight’s value packed 2 hour set the spirits of both bands were firmly in evidence.

The show started with an audio only intro from Sam Adams (Portland’s current mayor) who solemnly informed us that he was hovering above the venue in some kind of blue orb...okay. He then asked us to turn to the left and introduce ourselves, then turn to the right and do likewise. As I was standing next to a pillar on my left side and a man who must’ve been 7ft tall on the right this was tricky. I did try turning to the right but found myself staring at his groin. Thank god I didn’t try to shake his ‘hand’ as Sam had asked us to...boy that could’ve been embarrassing. Anyway, intro’s over , Colin and co kicked off with a seemingly pretty low key number ‘Lesley Anne Levine’ from their 2002 album Castaways and Cutouts. You know I was referring to the storytelling stuff earlier on? Well here’s the perfect example. It tells (or at least seems to tell...a lot of Meloy’s lyrics are endlessly pored over and analysed by superfans) the tale of a baby “born at nine and dead by noon” to a feckless mother sometime in the 19th century whose spirit then goes on to find love in the company of the spirit of a dead chimney sweep. Phew! You don’t get that with Tinie Tempah do ya eh?

The audience (perhaps some of whom were still mulling over the lyrics as much as I was) clapped appreciatively, a few chins were stroked, no doubt websites were surfed, tweets were issued and we all stood awaiting the next track. “God you’re quiet” observed Colin. Cue numerous ‘amusing’ shout outs from some of the audience and a few cries of “We’re being respectful” in broad Brummie accents. It broke the somewhat reverential spell though which was, I think, his intention and after that the band began cantering through their rich six album strong archive (an impressive body of work by anyone’s standards). The new album ‘The King Is Dead’ got a fair airing (‘Down By The Water’ and ‘Rox in the Box’ were particularly strong) but tonight was just as much of a greatest hits set with (oh happy day) plenty of tracks from the band’s breakthrough album ‘Picaresque’, the pairing of ‘The Bagman’s Gambit’ and ‘Engine Driver’ justifying the ticket price on its own.

Colin continued chatting in between songs (perhaps regretting berating us for being so quiet) and did his best to encourage one chap to leap from the balcony. Sadly he wimped out, that would’ve made quiet a good Decemberists’ song though I reckon. The Ballad of the Broken Brummie. Hmmm. Sometimes the dramatic veering between the Country & Western stuff, the poppier material and the folk tracks made things seem a little disjointed but at the same time this willingness to mix it up is, I guess, one of the band’s strengths. Further evidence of this saw Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins stepping up to the mic for a rocking version of ‘Won’t Want For Love’ (shades of Fleetwood Mac in there) then, breaking from his pleas to get his audience to leap to their deaths, Colin dedicated ‘This is Why We fight’ to the striking teachers of Wisconsin, sadly an all too rare appearance of politics in gigs these days. The last track of the main set simply had to be their biggest hit to date, the distinctly (by their standards at least) poppy ’16 Military Wives’. Conducting the various sections of the audience in the ‘La Di Dah’s’ of the chorus (“sing quieter, now speak it, now sing it like it’s a question”) Colin turned puppet master before uncharacteristically kicking the mic off the stage in a mock rock star move. One of the stage guys retrieved it only for Colin to launch it off the stage again before walking off. Who says The Decemberists aren’t badass eh? Having already dabbled in the old audience participation routine the encore included the epic accordion-tastic ‘Mariner’s Revenge Song’ in which we were all press ganged into action to scream as though we were being eaten by a whale. Despite most of us having limited experience of this (I was one nibbled by a parrot and gently caressed by an overly amorous butterfly) we made a pretty convincing effort. After a quick regurgitation (and now two hours into the set) ‘June Hymn’ sent us back out into the bone crunching cold dreaming of the summer, which Colin promised us faithfully was just around the corner. He’s not from round here is he? Still, as the lyrics to the last number put it, tonight had indeed been a "panoply of song" so we'll let him off that one.

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