Decemberists – Orpheum (Madison, WI)
The Decemberists’ show in Madison was a homecoming of sorts for multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk. “Our only midwesterner,” band leader Colin Meloy revealed about Funk, who later confessed that he used to play summer renaissance fairs in Wisconsin. “Oh great,” countered Meloy. “Our nerd factor just went up 30 percent.”
Actually, the nerd factor is the motor that drives the Decemberists’ boisterous, wide-eyed appeal. A night with Meloy and his bandmates is a night with Charles Dickens, Billy Preston, Thomas Wolfe, Rick Wakeman, Herman Melville, and Alan Parsons — all partying full speed on the Partridge Family bus.
The two-hour, sold-out show hinged itself to the tall tales contained in the band’s latest disc, The Crane Wife. Meloy has a way of taking morose, violent storylines, folding in melody, and turning them into celebrations. This creates a delirious choice for his audience: maniacal madness or musical magic.
Sometimes both. Meloy’s twelve-string lunged just ahead of drummer John Moen’s snare line during “Billy Liar”, a tale of juvenile indecency. Jenny Conlee, attractive like an unattainable church organist, busied her right hand on the upper keys as her seductive left hand swung back and forth in time.
Meloy’s stage presence, voice and guitar give the Decemberists its spirit, but it’s Conlee’s keys that give the band its soul. She kick-started the rousing “16 Military Wives” with 20 measures of Stevie Wonder-like boogie. During “The Crane Wife 3”, Conlee divided her focus between the organ and tapping out precise, precious notes on a xylophone perched to her right.
Onstage, bathed in sepia light and dressed in retro ’70s garb (1870s, that is), the Decemberists looked like a Mathew Brady tintype photograph. For many of the twentysomethings in the audience, seeing the Decemberists might be the closest they’ll come to experiencing an old movie.
“I will perform the part of the dead Confederate soldier,” Meloy explained as he introduced “Yankee Bayonet,” a duet with opener Shara Worden. “Miss Worden will play the part of the grieving, possibly pregnant widow.”
On this song, as in others, the Decemberists inhabit the lives of the people they sing about. Nowhere was this more magical than in the show’s rousing closer, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”. The epic tale is an audience scream-along; Meloy instructed the house to screech with fear as the story’s whale approached. That’s what they did as a blindfolded Moen staggered about the ship/stage, flailing timpani mallets into the air, connecting with his floor-tom target just in time for the chorus.
The group reeled the audience the rest of the way into the boat with their aerobic, 16-minute encore, “The Tain”. The old theater’s balcony bounced and swayed. Afterward, the musicians exited stage left in a long, single file. Out in front of the theater, like characters from a Meloy melody, spent audience members drifted fecklessly into the warm embrace of a Wisconsin spring night.