The Decemberists have always been a hard band to pigeonhole. Their earlier albums celebrated and recalled the great prog-rock bands of the ‘70s, but in the last few years they’ve been clearly enamored with the Appalachian sounds of antique American folk as exemplified by artists like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
The Decemberists’ music has always been complex, and it’s easy to imagine how difficult it could be to recreate in a live setting. Lead singer and main songwriter, Colin Meloy—like Shane MacGowan of The Pogues before him—writes extremely literary, if occasionally verbose, lyrics that the band molds into a traditional music framework that gives extra weight and power to the stories the songs tell. On record, it is a formula that works brilliantly, but as compelling as the concerts that these live recordings are taken from may have been to witness in person, the performances captured here don’t always translate well into a home-listening experience.
It’s not that the songs aren’t well-played. They are. Colin Meloy is in fine voice throughout, and the band—with Chris Funk on guitar and Nate Query on bass, as well as Jenny Conlee on accordion—is a capable and tight group of musicians. If there is any problem with the performances, it’s that John Moen’s powerful drumming is often front and center in the mix, which sometimes has the effect of drowning out the subtle interplay between the other musicians. In concert, this probably would have added to the immediacy of the performance, but the repetitive nature of Moen’s martial rhythms proved to be exhausting a few songs into this set.
The problem with this record certainly doesn’t lie with the material. Any concerns about how their older prog-rock opuses would fit alongside the warm and rootsy songs from The King is Dead and Long Live the King are put to rest early on. New songs such as “This is Why We Fight” and “Down By the Water” co-exist comfortably with older cuts like “The Rake Song” and “The Bagman’s Gambit” to form an effective narrative arc that demonstrates the care and attention the band took in constructing their live show. Choices such as presenting an uninterrupted 16-minute version of ‘The Crane Wife’ suite as a centerpiece to the concert, rather than separating the song into three sections as it was on the album, make for an exhilarating listening experience.
The essential difficulty that listeners may have when considering whether to purchase this two-CD set is that the live versions of the songs it features don’t really add much to the original recordings. While it is certainly true that concert-goers want to hear their favorite songs in a form that they recognize—and not a mumbled Bob Dylan-like approximation of them—it is also true that what made concert albums like Frampton Comes Alive, Grateful Dead’s Europe ‘72 and Bob Marley Live at the Lyceum so great was how each of them featured improvised and reworked versions of classic songs that added to and extended their effects and meaning. Features of other great live albums include unexpected cover versions or monologues—a la John Prine—that are often as exciting and rewarding as the songs themselves. There is none of that here, and other than a few breathless, perfunctory remarks and introductions, Meloy and company let the music speak for itself, which is fine in concert, but more often than not, the presentation falls flat when considered in isolation on a home stereo.
Listening to We All Raise Our Voices To The Air makes me want to catch The Decemberists live, and for those who have, this collection will doubtless serve as a great souvenir of a memorable experience. It also provides a fine overview of The Decemberists’ oeuvre, but this live set adds little to an understanding or appreciation of their music overall. Those who are interested but don’t already have their studio albums might want to start with them instead of purchasing this set.