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The Decemberists w/ Okkervil River (Saturday, April 9th, 2005, Fine Line Music Café)
The Decemberists at the Fine Line - Photo by Steve McPherson (click for larger version)


By Steve McPherson


Last spring, the Decemberists played what would come to be determined by a panel of judges to be my favorite show of last year. They were a pleasant discovery for me: a fantastic band with a passel of fantastic albums already under their belts. Colin Meloy’s smart and grandiloquent lyrics were the kind that I wanted to write and their weirdo obsession with 19th century urchins and chimney sweeps affected me in a way that musicals like Oliver never could.

Since that time, the band has said, “So long,” (or, more likely, “Avast,” or “Yargh,” or something appropriately piratical) to longtime drummer Rachel Blumberg and welcomed drummer John Moen (of the Minus 5 and the Jicks) and violinist/vocalist Petra Haden (of that dog and the Rentals) into the fold. So I eagerly looked forward to another Decemberists concert, slightly worried that it might not live up to their last. What would happen?

That, right there, is suspense. First I have to tell you about Okkervil River, about whom I had heard some things, mostly good, but I didn’t really know what to expect. Will Sheff took the stage all by his lonesome, armed with an acoustic guitar and looking like—and sounding not unlike—Robert Smith’s nephew. Immediately, comparisons to and overtones of Bright Eyes sprang to mind. This was further reinforced by the shambolic group of musicians that soon joined him, trading instruments, jumping around, and making a clangy, roots-y mess of music, most of which was very strong. Once the band got going, a host of other influences and contemporaries spilled out: My Morning Jacket, Neil Young, and their road buddies the Decemberists. With songwriter-based bands, songs that might get a hold on you in the privacy of your home or car can sometimes slide right off in a live context, and while Sheff clearly believes in what he’s singing, I found that a lack of familiarity with the material hindered my enjoyment, particularly of some of the lengthier songs. I suspect that upon hearing them on record, I’ll be much more appreciative. The 18+ crowd seemed to know their songs, though, and that’s who matters, as any record exec will tell you. Speaking of which, the crowd was overwhelmingly underage; it was like every college literary magazine editor showed up.

Meloy and his band have always worn their pretensions boldly on their sleeves, but this is beginning to change ever so slightly. It used to be that you had to listen to a Decemberists record much like you read Joyce: with a dictionary and a history book open on your lap. True to that form, they took the stage to the sound of a shofar, clad in khaki shirts and red bandanas, ersatz soldiers in a makeshift army, and burst into “The Infanta,” the lead track from their latest, Picaresque. But the outfits didn’t stay long, and one by one they shed them until they looked just about like any other band making great music. In much the same way, on their latest they’ve shed the stage dressing and Word-of-the-Day calendars in order to focus in on the characters and their stories, relying on narrative to carry the day. Meloy isn’t exploring Hemingway-esque minimalism yet, but he’s at least more like Mark Twain than Charles Dickens this time around.

The Decemberists - Fine Line (Photo by Steve McPherson)

The first time I saw them, my impression was that everyone was doing so many jobs on so many different instruments that they were just barely holding together a coherent sound, but this time around there was a newfound air of professionalism. Rachel Blumberg was a charming presence, with her little girl voice and competent drumming, but Moen’s sound on the kit is bigger and more confident, as is Haden’s voice, and her violin sounded great; it’s a texture they use to great effect alongside Nate Query’s stand-up bass.

Early on, Meloy apologized for his sickness-weakened vocals, but as the evening progressed, it seemed no apology was necessary. The set was well-constructed (I couldn’t help but share the giggle they must have had over following “The Soldiering Life” with “The Sporting Life”) and built up nicely through a selection of songs from their entire discography (bar their first EP) to their set closer, “The Mariner’s Revenge” and encore “The Tain,” a five-part song cycle that comprises an entire EP and takes about twenty minutes to play. It’s nice to hear a band save not their hits, but rather their most ambitious tracks, for last. “The Mariner’s Revenge” is set Jonah-like inside the belly of a whale and Meloy instructed the audience to make sounds like they were being swallowed by a great sea beast on guitarist Chris Funk’s mid-song cue. It was all terrific fun and the audience was absolutely down to play along. Other high points from the set included a cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” sung by Petra Haden and the gentle and affecting “The Engine Driver,” wherein Meloy spins verses from manual laborers against a chorus from a writer, ultimately conflating artists’ attempts to be rid of pain through creativity with everyone’s attempts to do the same through work, no matter what their profession.

In the end, the packed house made for a slightly less intimate experience than my last Decemberists show, but their sound and professionalism has been raised to a new level by the addition of capable new members, and I can’t begrudge them their success. Meloy’s skills as a tunesmith are catching up to his skills as a wordsmith, and this band of colorful rogues provides a welcome alternative to the cavalcade of introspective, egocentric indie rock that’s glutting the scene. Here’s to hoping the Decemberists’ ship stays seaworthy for a long time.

Steve McPherson is at steve.mcpherson[at]howwastheshow.com

Setlist:

The Infanta
July, July
We Both Go Down Together
Leslie Anne Levine
The Soldiering Life
The Sporting Life
From My Own True Love Lost at Sea
The Engine Driver
On the Bus Mall
Wuthering Heights (Kate Bush)
Los Angeles, I'm Yours
Billy Liar
Grace Cathedral Hill
The Mariner's Revenge

Encore:
The Tain