The Decemberists at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia (MD) – June 13, 2011

The arrival of warmer weather heralds the start of the big concert season in the northeast US, taking full advantage of the many capacious outdoor venues of the region, as well as the usual indoor venues of every size that are available throughout the year. Obviously, concerts are also held during the colder months, but especially in the summer the offer of live music is so plentiful that even the most dedicated fans must pick and choose what gigs to attend – unless they have an endless supply of time and money.

According to our original plan, at the end of this week my husband and I would have headed out to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for our third NEARfest. As most of my readers know all too well, the event was not meant to be, but we found ways to fill the gap in the month of June, picking and choosing among the vast range of live gigs scheduled in our area. Our choice fell on two bands that, in their own very different ways, have become mainstays of our listening routine: The Decemberists and Black Country Communion – one an established outfit with six studio albums under their belt, the other  the latest supergroup to take the rock scene by storm. Neither of those bands, strictly speaking, are ‘prog’, though they have quite a few points of contact with the genre, and both have often been covered by magazines and websites geared towards prog fans.

We had been so lucky as to see The Decemberists for the first time on their celebrated 2009 tour in support of their fifth studio album, The Hazards of Love, a monumental achievement that won them many fans among the often rather conservative ranks of prog lovers. On that occasion, they were joined by Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the two amazing female vocalists that had guested on the album – which was performed in its entirety, much to the audience’s ecstatic reaction. On the other hand, their latest recording effort, The King Is Dead – a slice of song-oriented Americana, offering very little of the intriguing eclecticism of its predecessors, released at the very beginning of 2011 – had left me somewhat cold. We were nonetheless delighted to learn that they would be playing the same venue as two years ago – the quaintly bucolic Merriweather Post Pavilion, a largish outdoor theatre deep in the Maryland woods, almost a stone’s throw from Baltimore.

Such rustic surroundings seem to be the perfect complement for the warmly engaging music of the Portland-based quintet, a seamless blend of articulate, often challenging lyrics and eclectic music rich with diverse influences. In sharp contrast with the suffocatingly humid heat of the previous week, the cool, dry weather of the evening of June 13 made being outdoors a real pleasure – to the extent that some of the people sitting on the lawn rather than under the pavilion were longing for warmer clothing. Our excellent seats allowed us a great view of the stage, and the two big screens placed on either side were a boon to those who were sitting at the back. If compared to the prog gigs and festivals that we usually attend, the nearly sellout crowd was much younger on average, with a definitely higher proportion of women to men. Even if, in my personal view, The King Is Dead is probably be the weakest of the band’s releases, it has undoubtedly been a relatively major commercial breakthrough for them, exposing them to a much larger audience. It also shows a band refusing to get stuck in a rut or taken for granted, and more than willing to surprise their audience with bold changes of direction.

After  a short opening set by supporting band Best Coast, a rather nondescript, female-fronted indie/garage rock outfit who nonetheless seemed to have their own loyal following, The Decemberists came on stage at 9 p.m., greeted deliriously by the crowd. Stripped down to their basic line-up of Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Nate Query and John Moen, with bluegrass artist Sara Watkins standing in for Jenny Conlee (who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer), they delivered a strong, invigorating set, mainly revolving around The King Is Dead (performed almost in its entirety, with the exception of one track), but also including a number of songs from their back catalogue. According to Meloy, the songs on the setlist had been chosen for their affinity with the summer season – the show opening with the infectious “July! July!” (from their 2006 album The Crane Wife), and  closing with “June Hymn” (from The King Is Dead), performed as a second and final encore.

Though, from a prog standpoint, The Decemberists’ music is not as mind-blowingly complex as the genre’s most beloved bands’ – relying as it does on conventional song structures and the occasional catchy hook – there is no denying that the band’s members know their business, and then some. Watching bassist Nate Query swing a double bass around with the nonchalant ease of a consummate old-school jazz player, drummer John Moen add subtle, intriguing percussive touches, or guitarist Chris Funk wring poignantly wailing sounds from his lap steel guitar, was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Sara Watkins (a recording artist in her own right, and already part of the tour prior to the announcement of Conlee’s illness) is also an outstanding multi-instrumentalist, though favouring the fiddle rather than the keyboards. She is also a fine singer, as proved by solo performance of “Won’t Want for Love” – though her voice has more of a gutsy rock feel than Becky Stark’s ethereal soprano, featured  in the song’s original version. Indeed, while the distinctive rumble of Conlee’s Hammond organ may have been missing, Watkins’ talented contribution complemented the alt.country slant of the newer material quite perfectly.

In spite of his nerdy, bookish appearance (this time around tempered by a full beard, which made him look somewhat older and more rugged), Colin Meloy is an outstanding frontman, not afraid to dive into the audience together with his acoustic guitar to be hauled back on stage by the crowd during the rousing encore of “The Chimbley Sweep”, and not averse to peppering his between-song banter with bits of pointed political commentary. While his voice may be an acquired taste, it fits the band’s music to a T, and his witty raconteur personality is undeniably pivotal to their appeal. Furthermore, he is an extremely versatile interpreter, conveying a sense of genuine menace in the stunning rendition of “The Rake’s Song” (one of the highlights of the show, drenched in dramatic red light, and enhanced by Sara Watkins and Chris Funk’s energetic drum-banging), while pleading heartbreakingly in “Annan Water”, and orchestrating the crowd’s enthusiastic response in the eminently catchy “O Valencia!” and “The Perfect Crime # 2”.

As I previously pointed out, I was not as impressed by The King Is Dead as I had been by The Decemberists’ other albums, which all get regular spins in our player. However, the same songs that had sounded a tad flat and uninvolving on CD came alive on stage, and acquired an appealing edge that the polished production did not always adequately get across. For all the polite, somewhat highbrow mien of their music, once on stage they rock with an endearingly old-fashioned intensity, getting the crowd to sing along, clap, dance and wave their arms in tried and true rock’n’roll fashion. Even in the absence of elaborate trappings and gimmicks, and relying only on a good light show and their own stage skills, The Decemberists are one of the most entertaining live acts on the current scene, capable of imbuing their musical output with a rare sense of warmth and genuine emotion. The more listener-friendly approach displayed onThe King Is Dead may have attracted a younger, hipper audience, but this has not turned them into one of those countless “here today, gone tomorrow” bands. With a solid catalogue, a cohesive, highly accomplished line-up and a great songwriter and frontman in Colin Meloy, The Decemberists are a force to be reckoned with, and –  regardless of those pesky tags and labels – a band firmly rooted in that great rock tradition that prog sometimes seems to have  forgotten.

Setlist:

July, July!
Down by the Water
Calamity Song
Rise to Me
The Bagman’s Gambit
Annan Water
Won’t Want for Love (Margaret In The Taiga)
The Crane Wife 3
Don’t Carry It All
All Arise!
The Rake’s Song
Rox in the Box
O Valencia!
The Perfect Crime #2
This Is Why We Fight

January Hymn
When U Love Somebody
The Chimbley Sweep

June Hymn

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