The Decemberists’ Beautiful World
That’s my number one wish, once I’ve forked out the cash for a live show. I can put up with lousy seats (or the lack of them), poor vantage points, people talking (well, almost!), short shows, costly admission and lack of artists’ communication on stage.
A few days before at Melbourne, Australia’s Hamer Hall, I had witnessed Calexico and was disappointed by the fact that, while I could hear every word spoken by lead singer Joey Burns, I could not make out many words he sung. Fortunately I knew a lot of the lyrics anyway, but it did detract from my enjoyment of seeing a favourite band at a venue renowned for its audio quality.
No such problems for the Decemberists at the same venue on Easter Tuesday. This Bluesfest sideshow was an acoustic delight.
And so it was from the beginning. Lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy walked alone to the microphone, acoustic guitar in hand, and started with the beautifully appropriate “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” the opening track of the band’s latest release What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. The rest of the players then quietly entered and rode the song to a splendid crescendo.
What followed was an utter delight as this indie folk outfit from Portland, Oregon, showcased four other songs from their latest release and took material evenly from most of their earlier albums.
I last saw the Decemberists on a smaller stage at the New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2011 and was taken by their musicianship, quirky songs, and daring sense of fun. Tonight, I was struck by the fact that their footprint was now much bigger, with two albums released to considerable critical acclaim since then and an equipment inventory that showed they meant business.
The band members are incredible players without overly drawing attention to themselves. Chris Funk (guitars, etc.), Nate Query (bass), Jenny Conlee (keyboards) and John Moen (drums) are also members of the fascinating newgrass-tinged outfit Black Prairie, and they carry out whatever they turn their minds to with ease.
But the centrepiece clearly is Meloy, whose voice is strikingly good. In a strange sort of way, he reminds me of REM’s Michael Stipe. His vocals are so rich and resonating, articulation so complete that he would make an English teacher smile. Lyrically, Meloy is an astute and wry observer of humanity.
There were many highlights – “Down by the Water,” “The Rake’s Song,” and “Cavalry Captain” come to mind instantly. Also, there were plenty of local references, such as a burning cover of the Hoodoo Gurus’ “Death Defying” and an amusing exchange featuring Moen’s new pair of Blundstone boots. More rollicking fun ensued with an epic version of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” featuring a large and delightful, toothy whale prop.
Three encores were met with standing ovations, which capped off a memorable night — a triumph for a band whose shadow continues to grow rapidly.