Indie folk staples The Decemberists brought a confident night of old favourites and some very fun if slightly clunky new material while critical darlings Hop Along stole the show as supports.
By the time I arrived at Rock City for The Decemberists’ Sunday gig, their support was already half a song in. Usually this wouldn’t bother me as half a support act song for an extra .5% blood-ethanol level is nigh always a worthwhile trade. What bothered me was when I found out that band was Hop Along. Hop Along are an American indie rock band who made a splash in the early part of this decade with their mature indie rock sound heavily coloured by folk and by virtue of frontwoman Frances Quinlan’s undeniably stunning voice, which stands as one of the strongest and most versatile instruments in modern indie rock. The band did not disappoint on the night as they moved through an exhilarating set with extreme comfort while still providing enough energy to thrill a particularly comatose Rock City crowd. Quinlan’s voice is every bit as gut-wrenching in person as it remains on record, able to infer an entire song’s worth of meaning with just an inflection on a throwaway line. Constantly sounding on the verge of breaking it’s still able to display immense depth and warmth.
Oh, to be a veteran indie act. It’s an undesirable fate, even for an indie band. At this point The Decemberists are pretty indisputably a veteran act, fresh off their new “electronic” album (which is definitely not the musical equivalent of a midlife crisis) they’re a weatherworn set of musicians with an extensive knowledge of their own back catalogue and the instrumental muscle to pull of a new sound. They were able to perfectly execute every song in their setlist (and I would imagine much of the rest of their discography) the vocals soared, classic folk rhythms intertwined, many singalongs were sung, I’d imagine there was probably a banjo at one point. There was just one thing that felt sadly absent from the night; fun. This isn’t to say the band were boring, I and everyone else around (many of whom clearly weathered fans themselves, granted) was thoroughly entertained through the whole set and there were some truly exhilarating moments throughout the set. But. But there’s a certain point where technical skill becomes learning by rote and performance becomes an echo of the studio recordings, the reverb of talent. It was impossible to shake the feeling we were just watching a bunch of supremely talented individuals just going through the motions.
There was a definite break in the night between the old material and the new. Chiming acoustic sea shanties would suddenly give way to chiming New Order worship in a heartbeat like being lost in a long dark wood with only the banging beat of “Blue Monday” to guide you out. The actual jarring-ness of this musically was pretty well counteracted by the general upkeep in song writing quality on the new release; as a rule, The Decemberists don’t write bad songs. The fault came however in the differences between how these two types of material were performed. The old material with the calculated unenthusiastic efficiency of conveyor belt, rolling out indie classic after classic like congealed Yo Sushi. The new material however marked an interesting shift in mood on the stage, suddenly the band were having fun. Classic, untheatrical, indie fun. And that was charming to see in spite of the fact the simple inorganic synth tones sound a bit goofy live and there’s clearly a deficit in practice between the two pools of material as the band sounded a bit shaky. Still, these songs ended up being the most fun chunk of the gig because it really made you root for The Decemberists. It’s difficult to say where down the line The Decemberists lost it, but if this gig showed me anything it’s that with a little time, and patience, they might just be able to get it back.