Live Review: The Decemberists – Sydney Opera House (29.03.16)

To say I’ve been anticipating the return of The Decemberists for some time is an understatement. Since first seeing the Portland, Oregon group in Canada almost ten years ago, I’ve jumped at every chance to see the band live. When first in Australia for Big Day Out in 2010, I was lucky enough to catch them three times in a week – each set delivering different songs and different experiences.

They’re a band with such an extensive back catalogue – and famously engaging stage presence (not to mention crowd participation) – that whether you see them once in a lifetime or, as it was, three times in a week, each and every experience is going to be a memorable one, to say the least. Especially when you’re a fan of their music. I’d go so far as to herald them as one of the best bands in the world. They’re certainly one of my favourites anyway.

Six years and two albums later, the group have finally returned to Australia, answering the call from Byron Bay Bluesfest (who I’m told had been trying to get them onto their festival for years) – fitting in two shows there and a few sideshows along the way. Though I briefly caught the group in 2011 when they launched The King is Dead in Los Angeles, this would be the first time since their last Australian tour that I’ve been able to catch a proper set – so, true to personal history, I’ve been lucky enough to catch them three times once again this week, twice at Bluesfest and ending this week at the Sydney Opera House – a venue I’d always dreamed of seeing the group perform.

Also true to form, every set has been vastly different to the next, their sets at Byron Bay incorporating an impressive mix of their back catalogue, while including an excellent cover of the Hoodoo Gurus‘ “Death Defying”, and ending each night with “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” – bringing along a massive felt whale along for the ride. The Opera House show would include both – giving both the whale and the Australian classic track a decent run for their money (as well as the $11.99 red cowbell that Colin so proudly used) in what have been the band’s first shows of the year.

Photo: Prudence Upton | Sydney Opera House
Photo: Prudence Upton | Sydney Opera House

Other than that, the approach for the night at the Opera House was understandably different, with Colin committing to playing as much of their last two records – 2011’s The King is Dead and 2015’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World – as possible, given they never toured either here. But the resulting set – which ahead of the encore indeed weighed heavily on the two releases – suffered from the decision. Both albums, while strong on record, don’t deliver the moments of true Decemberists live joy that so many of their older songs do. That’s not to downplay their splendour – “Carolina Low”, off their latest album, is arguably the most beautiful song the band has ever written and performed with Colin on the acoustic, accompanied solely by the band’s two backing female vocalists, who added masterfully to the band’s performance, it may have been the highlight of the night.

Though the first hour was devoted to songs of new, a few surprises were thrown in – including “The Apology Song”, a rarely played number that closed their 2001 debut EP, which Colin took as an audience request after stuffing up “Rox in the Box” in its first attempt. After playing the request, he successfully returned and a snippet of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac led into the brilliant Castaways and Cutouts number “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect”. But neither number, nor the others on display, exactly brought the crowd to their feet, even though Meloy provided us with his permission.

It wasn’t until the main set closers “16 Military Wives” and “Oh Valencia!” (Which included a snippet of “Dracula’s Daughter”) that this was achieved, and we saw moments that the band is known for. Having one side of the theatre shake their fists at the other during “16 Military Wives” is no new trick in the Decemberists live show, but it’s one that worked impressively well in the space and stood out as one of the best moments of the set. I would have loved more moments like it.

When the band returned for their first of three encores, they opted to treat the crowd to another of their records they were never able to tour here; unable to bring the extra vocalists in 2010 meant the brilliant The Hazards of Love was never given the live love it deserved. So an abridged version was delivered and, for lack of a better word, it was incredible, with six tracks off the album giving us a taste of the full production they toured many years ago. Ending with “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)”, the group left the stage again before returning with the Hoodoo’s cover and the brilliant “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” – which got the crowd dancing and screaming (when asked to do so) – which is an example of the band at their finest live.

Photo: Prudence Upton | Sydney Opera House
Photo: Prudence Upton | Sydney Opera House

Surprisingly, though this was a perfect way to end the night, they returned for a third encore, sneaking in “Dear Avery” off The King is Dead before they let us disappear into the night.

Though some of the set choices left a lot to be desired from a long time fan, the show was enjoyable from start to finish. Colin and the band’s banter was – as ever – hilarious and enjoyable, and they had the crowd in the palm of their hands. It’s just a pity they didn’t make more consistent use of this fact. But I’m nitpicking as a fanboy – at the end of the day, when you have songs this good, I’ll listen to just about anything you have to offer, and still be satisfied. And indeed I was.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t take the group another six years to return to our shores…

The Singer Addresses His Audience
Cavalry Captain
The Wrong Year
Hank Eat Your Oatmeal > Calamity Song
The Apology Song
Rox in the Box
Dreams (Fleetwood Mac) > Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect
Make You Better
Down by the Water
Carolina Low
Better Not Wake the Baby
Culling of the Fold
16 Military Wives
O Valencia! (With “Dracula’s Daughter” Snippet)
The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)
A Bower Scene
Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
The Rake’s Song
The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)
Encore 2:
Death Defying (Hoodoo Gurus cover)
The Mariner’s Revenge Song
Encore 3:
Dear Avery

Cover Photo: Prudence Upton | Sydney Opera House


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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.