Decemberists 9/21 – Wellmont Theater (Montclair, NJ)
I managed to catch The Decemberists Monday night, and like fine wines and some cheeses, it got better with age.
Having never seen the Decemberists in concert before, this was a fantastic way to get to know them live. The show was broken into two sets, plus a two-song encore that included an acoustic preview of a new song (mumbled as “January Moon” or something similar).
The First Set: complete play-through of “The Hazards of Love”, and it included guests Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) as the damsel Margaret and fierce diva Queen characters. The second set was a mixed bag of old-school Decemberists songs, from Crane Wife, Castaways & Cutouts, and plenty more.
The first half marched forward like a fairly well-oiled machine. There were some sound oddities (levels were potted up late - sometimes 15 seconds late!) here and there, but the roadies scampered out to hand off guitars, change mics and generally keep the seven performers going for the hour-long epic. And it impressed, mostly – what sonic highs and lows get lost on the compressed album came across like a freight train onstage. Becky Stark’s vocals were powerful (something untrue about the album’s mastering), the numerous repetitions of the “Wanting Comes In Waves” themes seemed to bust through the Wellmont’s dome, and five of the seven players busting out sticks and drumming their way through “The Rake’s Song” was a sonic and visual peak that felt like Polyphonic Spree, circa 1873.
On a sidenote, something else that was quite personal to me: the epilogue track (“Hazards of Love 4 – The Drowned”) was never a favorite of mine, but it gained new resonance for me after seeing it onstage – the crowd that applauded the finale quickly sobered when Colin and Becky reminded everyone that their characters were to be reunited in death. No matter how much the crowd wanted to respond, the story had to finish itself. Thus is the purpose of the epilogue.
The stage play between “characters” was minimal, and I honestly expected a little more. Granted, Colin was playing his guitar, but Becky/Margaret mostly spun around onstage like she was looking to fill the repetitive phrases of the opus. Shara’s performance as the queen was flapper-esque and full of diva quality – subtle nuances of her relationships with other characters shined through… all while she danced and strutted in giant heels.
In general though, what comes across as an oddity record to some gains new significance onstage. For those who loved the album, it still grows onstage, though someone like me who appreciates concerts for their visual spectacle may have felt a bit shortchanged by their lack-of-showiness. Crowd reaction was phenomenal for the first set overall, which means I'm probably just too stuck in my critic mindset!
The Second Set: Fun for all – sing-alongs, new tunes, “O Valencia”, “Engine Driver”, and possibly some Jersey love/hate… it started to drag after a while, mostly because a few songs were duds, judging by crowd reaction.
After over 2.5 hours the group finally finished up, so with their opener (the lovely Laura Viers and her Hall of Flames were a catchy bunch) the whole shindig ran 3.5 hours. And honestly, it was well worth it.
I left the Wellmont that night without much of an opinion - I think I was tired from a long show. As I started to realize exactly what transpired onstage that night, it started to grow on me. Sure, there were some glitches and cracks, but even if I disregarded their other plusses and just count the sonic benefits their live shows have over their recorded material, it was a worthwhile show. I’ll gladly see them again at first chance – just give me a little more legroom if I'm in the seats.
-Not very visual at times - much like watching old-time radio actors do their performance. Because it was a sonic tale, the visual spectacle had some really big lulls
-As a result of the lulls in “Hazards”, awkward-feeling dances from the two guest performers felt painful
-“Alright, they’re finished playing… time to… no wait, there’s more? Okay… NOW they’re done… nope, wait! Oh, now they’re doing an encore? One song? No, two?” (Make up your mind, Decemberists! Don’t say “one more” when you mean at least a half dozen!)
-Wellmont balcony seats are not built for people who are six feet tall. Theories about the human race growing taller over time must be true.
-For what it’s worth, their performance did have some great visual highs to match their sonic ones - The Queen, "The Rake's Song", and the vivid greens at the beginning and end.
-Chris Funk's pedal steel guitar - never had it jumped out at me on the album as much as it did onstage. It's beautiful.
-Colin Meloy’s playful relationship with the audience – from getting them singing, to telling them stories, to shouting down a guy who shouted up a silly request, he was not snooty as I had been previously led to believe. Nice suspenders too, dude.
-Seeing an age range from about 14 to 65 that included hippies, biker dudes, NPR nerds, college students and a guy that looked like he was from the new Where the Wild Things Are movie. ROCK!
Overall: 4/5 stars
(PS: I will do my best to air the Chris Funk interview this Sunday - I may have a live interview this week too, so it'll be a chock-full Campus Buzz! Tune in! 8-10 PM this Sunday!)