don't you tell me how i feel.

Geeking out by Steele
June 16, 2011, 4:11 pm
Filed under: nerdy shit, New Shit That Sounds Old, Shit I love, Shows, sort of new music

I wouldn’t call myself a megafan of the Decemberists, but last night I realized that I was seeing them live for the third time. This really speaks to the fact that on stage, they’re a guaranteed good time – fun, energetic, always sharp, always confident and always political.

No one makes music like the Decemberists these days, or maybe no one ever did. Their music is unapologetically literary, intellectual and expansive. They tell epic stories of ancient and modern times with the vocabulary of an Olde English scholar. I once read a review of an album that noted, “Singer Colin Meloy will never say ‘twenty-five’ when he can say ‘five and twenty,’ ” and that’s true. A reviewer from last night’s show observed, similarly, the careful use of the word “motorcar” in a song, when obviously “car” would have sufficed. Their more ambitious songs have included passionate and often gruesome tales: a young aristocrat who rapes his peasant sweetheart, a vengeful mariner who meets his target in the belly of a whale, a wife who transforms into a bird, a government agent who has a sordid affair with a Russian spy.

For the latest album, The King Is Dead, the Decemberists stripped down and made a record that sounds like Neil Young, R.E.M. and a leaner version of themselves. Gone are the 10-minute epic poems, in are 3-4 minute songs about love, life, and rebellion. The new stuff sounded terrific onstage, particularly the activist anthem “This is Why We Fight,” “Down By the Water” and “Don’t Carry it All.” They treated us to some oldies, too, including the gorgeous “The Crane Wife 3” (based on a Japanese folk tale), the Romeo  and Juliet-esque “O Valencia!” and “We Both Go Down Together,” and a phenomenal version of the aforementioned spy-who-loved-me jam, “The Bagman’s Gambit.”

Some of the show’s highlights had nothing to do with the music. A few songs in, Meloy noticed a few stragglers heading to their front-row seats and said, “Isn’t it funny how the people in the front row seats are the last to arrive? The people in the balcony were quite on time. If that’s not an argument for a progressive tax, I don’t know what is.” Meloy noted a handful of still-empty seats up front and pledged that if they remained so, he would ask others in the audience to move up and take them. A song or two later, he followed through, and a few happy hipster kids eagerly obliged. It was sweet, like something a cool dad would do.

During the show’s finale, the classic “Chimbly Sweep,” the band devolved into a jam session and invited a few people onstage to play the instruments, dance and sing backup. Meloy and drummer John Moen switched places and Moen sang an improvised “blues” song. The whole thing was ridiculous and went on a little too long, but I’m pretty sure perfection wasn’t the goal.

It says something about a band when they’re willing to let things get so silly. The Decemberists are one of the more “serious” bands out there in some ways, but their sense of humor is obvious in their live shows. The bookish Meloy and his bandmates posture like rock stars on stage, or like teenagers living out their rockstar fantasies. Yet at the same time, they really do rock, and way harder than anyone might expect them to from listening to the records. Cheers to them.

One less-happy note was that longtime band member accordion-violin-piano-singer-does-everything Jenny Conlee was missing; Meloy said she is undergoing chemo for breast cancer. Her stand-in seemed pretty great last night, but it’s hard to imagine how painful it must be for everyone in the band to have left Conlee behind, and for her to have been left. They must think about her throughout every show.

Oh, and surf-pop band Best Coast opened the show. They were cute enough. But, as my show-partner observed, when you’re there to see a band that uses words like “picaresque” and “coronet,” lyrics like “I wish he was my boyfriend/I’d love him til the very end/but instead he’s just a friend” can be a little hard to take. Nice try, kids.

Here are the Decemberists performing a new song on Jimmy Kimmel:

Here’s “The Crane Wife 3.”


1 Comment so far
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this is a beautiful review. when we saw them in boston, i also remember being struck by how rock-star-ish meloy was, striking all kinda of pete townshend-esque poses. revenge of the nerds y’all

Comment by v

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