Wild Ride with The Decemberists

The Decemberists are passionate, intense and they put on one hell of a show.

By Ira Kantor

BOSTON, Mass.– The Decemberists are a difficult group to categorize. Maybe it has to do with being one of few acts (besides Everclear) to hail from Portland, Oregon. On first listen, they sound like any other talented alternative band but really they’re the only band that could keep passengers enthralled while their ship sank. Through sensuous shanties and introspective instrumentation, The Decemberists reached the apex of critical acclaim with 2006’s The Crane Wife. However, after a sold-out gig at the Avalon Ballroom last week, this band could soon be prevailing over the commercial market.

If possible, the band’s collective sound and style would culminate best in a Georges Seurat painting. In a passionately intense 90-minutes, band members Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, John Moen, Nate Query, and Jenny Conlee easily over-thrilled their receptive throng of several hundred zealots. Each group member has his or her own kind of virtuosity. Whether exchanging instruments with one another or tinkering with diverse sounds on the harmonium and accordion, the group’s joviality was never lost on the audience.

But that’s beside the point. What matters most is this band is completely capable of making their complicated studio wizardry come alive on stage.

Dressed to kill in a cream-colored suit that would make Colonel Sanders jealous, Meloy, the group’s quirky front-man, strapped on his bouzouki (a Balkan folk instrument) and started the show with the tender “The Crane Wife 3.” From here, the band went right into the fan-favorite “July, July!” and their Picaresque opener “The Infanta.” With throaty vocals and an animated spirit, Meloy’s energy never faltered as the band’s other members happily matched his attitudes on whichever instrument (slide guitars and upright basses included) were in their hands.

Each song toyed with a variety of nostalgic themes – including, death, war, love, and loss. On “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” Meloy sang with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, the band’s opening act who established the ambient night with a spirited six song set, including a harrowing keyboard rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.” With Worden voice delving into Amy Lee territoy and Meloy’s sobering vibrato (which makes his face grimace like Joe Cocker), the two were a plushly musical yin and yang.

Yet the Decemberists also proved they had a sense of humor. If it was Meloy beginning a song in the wrong key or declaring his group members of MACOF (Musicians Against The Calling Out of “Free Bird”), the band took to the spontaneity like children running wild. On “Culling of the Fold,” Meloy did his best Iggy Pop, rolling around the stage and getting directly in the faces of those closest to the stage. Flailing wildly, Meloy then proceeded to hang himself with his microphone cord, all to better capture the imagery within the song’s lyrical content.

Other songs like “O Valencia!” and “When The War Came” were as chilling as they were catchy. The latter served as the most ritualistic number of the evening as Meloy violated his electric Gibson a la Jimi Hendrix, minus setting the instrument on fire.

While this concert was exciting on all levels, two numbers came out on top. The 12-plus minute saga “The Island (Come And See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel The Drowning)” was both hypnotic and perfectly executed. With Funk’s chugging guitar melodies and Conlee’s Kansas-styled progressive organ playing, this song had the power to last all night and it was a shame it didn’t. Watching Meloy, Funk, and Query marching in rhythm also made the song come alive as its wartime symbolism came in stark contrast to the pastoral background of printed forest animals hanging at the back of the stage.

The band’s final song, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” was equally amazing because its longevity was sparked by the dance music coming from below. Leading the crowd in a chorus of “Hang The DJ,” Meloy then proceeded to spin a Moby Dick-derived yarn about privateers and whalers who engage in fits of depravity only to be swallowed by a whale in the end. Conlee’s frenetic accordion notes, Funk’s furious mandolin strumming, and Moen’s tribal drum banging made this song seem like a drunken thrill ride. But just then for added effect, a fake whale appeared on stage to gobble up the band, leaving them in a musically dissonant mess.

Thus this show had a tragic end. Still, what a marvelous ride.

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