Sunday, November 5, 2006

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT: The Decemberists

Live at Hammerstein Ballroom, NY, 11/3/06

The Decemberists in concert at Hammerstein Ballroom New York

The Decemberists. The name itself is evocative. Evocative of a multitude of things, among them an icy chill in the air, avid proponents of the month of December, and for the smarty-pants historians among us, Russian revolutionaries. But for music fans, the name can mean only one thing: The storied band out of Portland, OR, upon whom so much praise has been heaped, and around whom such a legend has grown, that it's difficult to imagine them living up to expectations. Entering Hammerstein Ballroom for The Decemberists' CMJ Music Marathon concert on 11/3, every member of the sold-out crowd was certain that they would.

Colin and his cohorts have cultivated such a mystique that their true story has been lost to the mists of time. I, for one, prefer the band's version of revisionist history. As The Decemberists' Wikipedia entry attests, "Their official biography, keeping up their reputation for intentionally over-the-top grandiloquence, describes how the band's members met in a Turkish bath. A footnote following the biography claims, 'The Decemberists travel exclusively by Dr. Herring's Brand® Dirigible Balloons.'" Who wants the real story when we can have such a mythology?

Colin Meloy of The Decemberists in concert at Hammerstein Ballroom New York

Much has been made of band visionary and leader, Colin Meloy's prowess as a lyricist. And for good reason. His songwriting can be most easily summed up as "literary," which it often is in print, so I won't claim this as a revelatory observation. However, I prefer to think of Colin as a raconteur -- a traveling storyteller of old, weaving yarns for the enjoyment of the public, much as a bard of Ireland would recount the history of his people through story-songs. Not convinced? His EP, The Tain, is exactly that -- an 18-minute-long retelling of the Irish mythological epic of the same name. Take also, for example, his tale of doomed lovers upon the Cliffs of Dover:

We Both Go Down Together

With four full-length albums and three EPs full of songs to pull from, his discography is rife with atmospheric tales of Civil War sweethearts left behind, injured football heroes, married magical bird-maidens, daughters of Spanish kings, sea chanteys worthy of Ahab himself, and cautionary tales of murderers haunting the shadowy streets of Belfast. But is this really so extraordinary? He's not the first to employ storytelling in his songcraft. One need only remember Morrissey's "Vicar in a Tutu," who wasn't strange, he just liked to live his life in a particular way. Or of lonely "Eleanor Rigby," buried along with her name. Colin is the youngest in a long line of storytellers who entertain us with cantos revealed with bombast and grinning gusto.

Shankhill Butchers

Yes, Colin displays an enviable vocabulary, employing such toney words as "palanquin," "four-score years," "curlews," "arabesques," and "fontanelle." But reviewers always seem to toss off a mention of his degree in English, as if that can neatly and tidily explain away his talent and unconventional approach. Frankly, to describe him as nothing more than an English major is belittling, considering how many of us there are out there without a Crane Wife, a Tain, or a Picaresque under our belts.

Colin, for one, never chooses to downplay his literary bent and influences. On the contrary, he plays up the angle, allowing it to bolster the group's mythology. In fact, in "The Engine Driver," the narrator declares himself "a writer - a writer of fictions." And while fictions are what Meloy excels at, they also give him the opportunity to exorcise any internal demons -- just as his Engine Driver does:

The Engine Driver

It's refreshing that so much attention be paid to the lyrics. How often does that happen in rock today? But let us not gloss over the incredible musicality and musicianship of The Decemberists. This, my friends, is where it becomes clear that Colin Meloy is not the only member of the band worthy of attention and admiration. Nowhere is it more obvious than in seeing The Decemberists perform live. And as they proved at their CMJ showcase at Hammerstein Ballroom, The Decemberists are Musicians with a capitol M. They glide effortlessly from one style to the next, and from one instrument to the next with ease. And we're talking some mighty unusual instruments, at that.

Colin Meloy, Nate Query and Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists in concert at Hammerstein Ballroom New York

Every person on stage at Hammerstein was a multi-instrumentalist. Guitarist Chris Funk played banjo, pedal steel, fiddle and what looked like an antique hand-cranked organ or hurdy-gurdy. Bassist Nate Query also pulled out a cello and a stand-up bass, playing both finger-plucked and bowed. John Moen added harmonizing vocals and melodica to his drumming duties. And the inimitable Jenny Conlee rocked her trademark hammond organ, keyboards, accordion and melodica. Last, but not least, came touring backup vocalist Lisa Molinaro, who lent guitar, violin, accordion and xylophone to the mix. I'm told someone throws in a theremin, from time to time, as well. As you can imagine, the stage was downright packed with one beautiful instrument after another, ranging from electric to exotic. While their performance was tight as a drum, they kept the vibe lighthearted, playful and rollicking. They were downright game for whatever their merry trickster of a leader had in mind.

Song for Myla Goldberg

In the end, it all comes down to Colin as a powerhouse frontman. These are his stories. These are his melodies, and his arrangements. This is his voice, ringing to the balcony with more power than I'd imagined he'd have, and with far more comedy in his patter than I would have dared hope. Seriously, the guy's hilarious. I mean, really, he staged a dance contest in the middle of the audience, ordering the crowd to part and clear circles for people to boogie down, setting up a rivalry between house-right, house-left and balcony. (The balcony won, hands down.) And in the middle of performing a rollicking rendition of "Sixteen Military Wives," he again encouraged a little friendly crowd competition dividing the crowd in half, advising us to avoid the hot boiling lava down the middle, and telling us to leer at our neighbors on the opposite side. "It's almost election day. Let's get riled up, eh? Let's get riled up!" Get a load of this:

Sixteen Military Wives

Would you have guessed he went to theater school as a kid? Ahhhh, it all becomes so clear! After enjoying an impromptu sing-along during one of his more obscure numbers, he berated us for not warming up properly before singing, as we might damage our voices and risk never singing again. Then he proceeded to lead a couple thousand of us in choral class vocal warm-up exercises, encouraging us to sing from the diaphragm. I kid you not. See for yourself:

O Valencia!

Theatricality, it seems, is Colin's middle name. He understands the power of tone and mood, as he showed when he asked the light engineer to bathe us in spooky red lights for his chilling cautionary tale, "Shankhill Butchers." He even stopped one song to narrate while three band members reenacted an epic battle in the middle of the crowd. Each recruited "armies" from among the fans, and all would agree, it was a rout.

John Moen of The Decemberists in the crowd at Hammerstein Ballroom New York

The Decemberists' show at Hammerstein was clearly a highlight of the CMJ festivities this week. Though to call it a "CMJ show" is a bit of a misnomer. As at so many of the other shows during the week, not a soul with a CMJ badge was allowed entry, prompting many on line to wonder aloud why they bothered spending $400+ on a badge to begin with. But that's an article for another day.

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