The performing of albums in their entirety has been territory reserved by bands boasting earlier seminal albums, but the Decemberists tonight play their newest album released just six months ago. But then the Portland quintet have never had to worry about pursuing trends to ensure a sizeable following.
The Hazards of Love, inspired by Anne Briggs's rare EP of the same name, is, after all, a rock-opera song-cycle telling the story of a maiden ravaged by a shape-shifting animal steeped in British folk-rock of the 1960s and heavy prog. Whereas, the album at times demands a fair bit of attention of the listener, live it is far more compelling. That's partly to do with the ever-shifting instrumentation on stage – hammered dulcimer, accordion, double bass, hurdy-gurdy included in the folksy line-up – and that five of the seven musicians on stage tonight deftly play at least two instruments, sometimes simultaneously. At one point in the set, the accordion and keyboard player plays keys with one hand and a xylophone with the other. At another, there are five musicians playing drums, but while for many bands this is about creating as much volume as possible, for the Decemberists, it's all about complexity, depth and clarity. The sound is meticulously clear.
Through their dexterous performance and the assistance of their two excellent guest singers – the soulful- voiced Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, and Becky Stark, lead singer with Lavender Diamond – frontman Colin Meloy's poetic libretto is lovingly brought to life.
Meloy may be a bookish figure in his trademark specs and tweed jacket, but he knows how to rock. He transforms "The Rake's Song" into a stomping rock hit. It is in the second half of the set in which his character can really shine. The selection of their back catalogue showing off the more obvious and upbeat of their baroque indie rock includes further gems, the wistful "The Engine Driver" boasting the falsetto harmonising backing vocals of the drummer, and "O Valencia!" from The Crane Wife.
That their fans have had to wait two years since their last show in the UK is palpable: they hang on Meloy's every action. He is a ringmaster, commanding his band, and then the audience, at one point getting his fans to sit down, and later, rousing the whole building to their feet. The Decemberists can set their ambitions high and succeed.