The Decemberists are a thinking man’s rock band. A Geek Squad on tour bus wheels, if you will. And to see them and appreciate them in concert, it helps to bring along your intellect and your imagination.
Especially on their current spring swing, which includes a June 10 show at Radio City Music Hall in New York and was barely a week old when it stopped at the Fillmore Auditorium on May 26.
Following Blind Pilot’s breezy easy-listening set, the Decemberists, fronted by Colin Meloy (left), began a two-hour concert in Denver with a challenging but ultimately satisfying performance of their latest release, The Hazards of Love, in its entirety.
Their fifth full-length album, released in March (Capitol Records), is an adventurous piece of risky business that, for the uninitiated listener, might require a keen interest in folklore and a CliffsNotes edition of Decemberists for Dummies. The same could be said of this show.
The Hazards of Love is a magical and mystical piece of musical theater, a folk rock opera for the ages. What does it all mean? Who knows? But you didn’t need to understand Tommy to enjoy and admire The Who’s powerful live performance in its entirety either, before or after it became a Ken Russell movie and a hit Broadway play.
The Decemberists’ fable in a nutshell (go to the band’s website to download the lyrics and liner notes) involves: a sweet young thing (Margaret) who could pass for a princess but is ravaged by a shape-shifting animal; her lover (William); a mean forest queen; and a cold-blooded, lascivious rake.
It all might sound a bit pretentious – including the description of the album (a 17-song suite) – and could have taken a few Spinal Tap turns. (Where’s the miniature Stonehenge?) But a businesslike Meloy (looking like an orchestra leader, nattily attired in coat, tie and suspenders), his talented and versatile band and guest vocalists Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) played it straight and pulled it off.
And the crowd went along for the ride, as if on cue. They were enchanted by Stark’s pretty and childlike vocals as “Margaret” (with a sparkling tiara in her hair) on “Won't Want for Love (Margaret In the Taiga)” and her swirling, twirling spins throughout her “Isn't It a Lovely Night?” duet with Meloy (above); whooped it up and cheered wildly during trips to heavy-metal heaven on “A Bower Scene” and “The Queen's Rebuke / The Crossing”; kept quiet while Jenny Conlee’s go-for-baroque harpsichord launched “The Wanting Comes in Waves”; then erupted with uproarious delight as the song transformed into “Repaid,” a belter that the pint-sized Worden, wearing villainous black, attacked with a vengeance in her dastardly role as this century’s version of “The Acid Queen.”
Mercifully, “An Interlude” followed, the peaceful instrumental that allowed everyone on stage and off a chance to take a breather after Worden nearly stole the show.
Meloy, who wrote all the album’s songs excluding “Prelude,” splendidly handled double duty as “William” and the “Rake,” appearing thoughtful and kind one moment, haunting and menacing the next.
The all-around musicianship was superb, from Conlee’s opening notes on the synthesizer and Hammond B-3 organ. The other regular band members – Chris
Funk (guitars), Nate Query (bass, above left with Meloy) and John Moen (drums) – took on other musical tasks as well. Worden and Stark added to the fun by beating the drums and joining Meloy on chants of “All right! All right!” for a phenomenal and furious finish to “The Rake’s Song.”
More surprises followed and Meloy held it all together at center stage with four tender variations of “The Hazards of Love,” the third led by a prerecorded children’s chorus and the fourth serving as the epilogue.
It was a tough act to follow. Even if the Decemberists were following themselves. After a 15-minute intermission, the Portland, Ore.-based quintet performed 45 minutes of selections from their past that dates back to 2001.
When it was all said and done, the second set seemed like a bit of a letdown, though. Maybe the audience, with its fantastic energy, was spent after witnessing the wondrous experience of The Hazards of Love.
Meloy seemed relaxed, though, returning with only his regular band members. But by identifying the “Mile High City” as “the home of a football team,” he missed his chance to further connect with a sports-crazed city that was living and dying at the time with the Nuggets in the NBA playoffs.
No worries. Meloy chatted casually in between songs that covered dark subjects such as a child dying at birth (“Leslie Ann Levine” off 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts) and joint suicide (an R.E.M-like “We Both Go Down Together”), focusing on tales of “teenage self-absorption” because “there are fans of that, I can tell,” he said.
Meloy eventually brought back Worden for a duet on “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” from the 2006The Crane Wife, then re-energized the near-capacity crowd with a singalong on “Billy Liar,” a playful and jaunty British-sounding ditty with early Beatles guitar licks.
After a brief performance of what Meloy called “the very worst song I ever wrote … with the very worst chords you can possibly play together,” something about Dracula’s daughter, he went back to work in the crowd-pleasing department.
“O Valencia!,” also from The Crane Wife, got everybody hopping again before Stark returned to team up on lead vocals with Worden (above left with Stark and Meloy) for a cover of Heart’s “Crazy On You.” There was no doubt who won the award for best Ann Wilson impersonation. It must be good to be the Queen.
For the finale, Meloy wanted to send his fans home with “ringing in your ears” to the refrain of “Here all the bombs fade away,” from “Sons & Daughters.”
Mission accomplished. Now Meloy and his fellow Decemberists might want to consider flipping the sets and saving the best for last.
Something for the band with brains to think about.
For more photos from the Fillmore concert, check out the slideshow below: