The Decemberists, Hammersmith Apollo, London

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The Independent Culture

Few bands are without an identifiable frontman or woman, but some are more front than others. Oregon six-piece The Decemberists are a case in point.

They have a striking collective focus – their richly woven folk-rock depends on it – but to see them in concert is to witness an individual performance of such wit, engagement and ebullience as to redefine what a rock audience can expect from those up on stage.

If geeky is the new glamorous, then Colin Meloy, The Decemberists' presiding figure, is a true heart-throb – a man with both the physique of Elton John and his love of entertaining a crowd. But he does it without recourse to gimmicks or outrageous costumes – or indeed to anything except a supreme confidence in his own material that is wholly winning and entirely justified.

Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay Meloy is to say that if he had not played a note or sung a word he could still have kept a packed Hammersmith Apollo in his thrall, such was the quality and timing of his repartee. The moment when he was instructing the audience in singing along to "16 Military Wives" – adjusting our volume downwards until eventually we just had to "think" the refrain – demonstrated stagecraft worthy of the most gifted stand-up.

All this and songwriting of amazing calibre and variety in a show that drew heavily on The Decemberists' most recent album, The King Is Dead. Its personal, heartfelt character was seen as a departure for a band known for the extravagance of their tall tales, but in fact what's marvellous about The Decemberists is that even when they are at their most fantastical – in epics like "The Crane Wife" or "The Mariner's Revenge", both of which were performed here with huge aplomb – a core of true feeling is present and the listener's imagination is fully captured.

Meloy's been called the "songwriter's songwriter". Actually, he's everybody's.