To hell with the fact that they’re now on a major label – when I think “indie,” I think Decemberists. Though as a definition the term is all but meaningless these days, The Decemberists embody all the vague associations I still have with it. Quirky sensibilities that seems blissfully oblivious to the current Top 40, a focus on melody and tunecraft, a do-it-yourself fan-friendly attitude. I discovered The Decemberists long ago, and they were first band I thought of as “indie rock.”
I first got the chance to see them in ’07 at Bonnaroo (review here). Though they put on a great show, the clear highlight being them joined by gospel legend Mavis Staples for a cover of “The Weight,” being baked by the sun after three days of camping is not the ideal environment in which to see anyone. The Orpheum Theatre however, much better. Though it’s a bit of a dive, with no leg room and poor ventilation, the fairytales of shipwrecked sailors and chimney sweeps had room to blossom in the dusty hall.
No fairytales blossomed during openers Loch Lomand unfortunately. Like Decemberists Lite, they failed to pull off similar lilting ballads that didn’t couldn’t muster quite the panache of Decemberists songs. As xylophone vied with the lead singer’s chirpy falsetto for prime annoyance, the two girls whose gorgeous harmonies proved they should be front and center were relegated to background singers. Their set proved its worth however upon the delivery of one classic line: “The sound of children laughing make my eyes bleed.”
The Decemberists soon gave Loch Lomand a lesson on how to do alt-folk-rock right, entering the stage to lots of drum pounding and guitar thrashing, building up to their lesser-known “Shanty for the Arethusa” as the crowd exploded. The energy didn’t let up for two hours, songs of wayfarers, wharf rats, and engine drivers presented grandly and theatrically.
Though they touched on all their albums during the set, the focus, and the reason for the tour, was the singles series Always the Bridesmaid they’ve been slowly releasing this fall. Throughout the night they performed all the original songs off that, and though most of the audience was unfamiliar with them (3 out of the 5 had not yet been released) they more measured up to the older material.
Also drawing four songs from their most recent standard release The Crane Wife, the Decemberists turned two ten-minute-plus tunes into the highlight of the night. “Islands” and “The Perfect Crime #2” have been fleshed out over a year of constant touring to be different beasts on stage, the former in particular going through movement after movement, instrumental after instrumental, excursion after excursion as it slowly built.
Unquestionably the star of the show, Colin Meloy proved himself a charismatic frontman as well, venturing into the audience to sing and gallivant down the aisles and telling anecdotes about his adventures with his girlfriend’s mother along Boston’s Freedom Trail.
More than anything though, the topic on his mind was Barack Obama. If tonight was one thing, it was a concert, but if it was two things, it was also a political rally. Needless to say he was preaching to the choir, but time and time again he extolled the change coming to America, always in his humorous self-deprecating way. “Yes we can!” chants broke out periodically, some initiated by Meloy (“When I say ‘Yes we can!,’ you say ‘Yes we did!’”), others not. Meloy avoided complete punditry with a sense of humor though, introducing “The Chimbley Sweep” by saying this was the text of Obama’s recent speech on Fox News, interspersing side commentaries as the sing progressed. Michelle even got a verse of her own, sung by the band’s token XX chromosome, Jenny Conlee.
The most powerful political statement though was the one left unspoken. Upon the encore the band finally obliged the shouted requests for “Sons and Daughters,” taking the audience one step further by inviting them onstage to sing along. Seeing the mass of young people crowding a stage singing, “Here all the bombs fade away” in unison proved more inspiring than any speech.
Shanty for the Arethusa
O New England
The Engine Driver
On the Bus Mall
The Island: Come & See – The Landlord – You’ll Not Feel the Drowning
The Perfect Crime #2
Days of Elaine
Record Year for Rainfall
The Culling of the Fold
The Chimbley Sweep
16 Military Wives
Sons and Daughters