The Decemberists Light Up The Night

On Wednesday evening I found myself standing inside the gates of Malkin Bowl eagerly waiting for The Decemberists to take the stage. I’ve only recently discovered this “indie-folk-rock” band, and while I’ve certainly heard good things about their live shows, I was curious to see if they would live up to expectations.

The crowd, consisting of a medley of characters of all ages, slowly meandered from their picnic spots to join the crowd surrounding the stage as the 8PM start time drew near. Suddenly a booming voice came over the loudspeakers announcing himself as the Mayor of Portland, and, after assuring us that this was not a recording, asked us to get to know our neighbours, do a little meditation, and welcome The Decemberists.

This introduction piqued my interest immediately, and as the band appeared and the crowd roared I couldn’t help but get swept up in the excitement.

The band, who hail from Portland, are at the end of their Popes of Pendarvia World Tour – no doubt an exhausting adventure – but they bore no signs of this as they crooned and danced around the stage in their ever-so-west-coast vests, hats, and suit jacket ensembles. The group composed of Colin Meloy (singer/songwriter), John Moen (percussion), Chris Funk (guitar), Nate Query (bass guitar/string bad), and Jenny Conlee (accordion etc), who due to her battle with breast cancer unfortunately could not make it to this evening’s concert. Standing in for Conlee was the talented Sarah Watkins (singer/songwriter and much more).

Since 2002 the band has put together at least six albums, and while the set list for the evening was mostly pulled from their latest album, The King is Dead (2011), there was a spattering of popular hits selected from their entire collection.

From the get-go one thing that stood out was Meloy’s ability to make the audience feel included and comfortable. He joked with us, asked us to join in on songs, and replied to every heckle that crossed his ears with the ease of a professional conversationalist. He, and the rest of the band, gave the impression of being a group of friends who love what they do and love sharing it with their fans in a really personal way.

While their songs are certainly catchy, and their ability to switch from Celtic folk to country western to folk rock is impressive, it’s their lyrics that really drew me in. Every song is a story, a poem, and a complete thought. Unlike some of the dribble out there today on the radio, if you take the time to listen to The Decemberists lyrics, you’ll find an intriguing exposé on the opinions, thoughts, and feelings of the band. From Calamity Song, which touches on global tragedy, to the tale of the star-crossed-lovers in O Valencia!, it’s clear that The Decemberists have depth.

Not even half way through the night the band had made a die-hard fan out of me. I could envision myself driving down a winding coastal road, the summer breeze lingering in the air, rocking out to the tunes of this west coast collection.

Alas, all things must come to an end, which bring me to my only criticism of the evening. After an hour of music the group announced their last song, This is Why we Fight. As I am not a huge fan of the forced encore, no matter how great the band is, I was shocked at how short this set had been and figured it must be a joke. As the stage darkened and the minutes ticked by the hollers from the crowd did not cease, but my own impatience started to grow. The band did retake the stage, but after far too long, and it took them singing their best live song to win me back to my former adulation.

The song was Mariner’s Revenge, and it was quite the theatrical production. The band pulled out all the stops; acting out the verses, encouraging the audience to scream at appropriate intervals, and even succumbing to death (and then revival) before our very eyes. It was incredibly entertaining and I’m glad I stuck around to witness the display.

Needless to say there was a second encore, and this time the band came back on a bit more quickly to finish with June Hymn.

This was a perfect summer concert. It was fun and energetic yet clever and inspiring. The band was brilliant, the venue was charming and the weather wonderful. I look forward to seeing what this band comes up with next, and can say with confidence that I’ll be looking out for them the next time they’re in town.

The Decemberists photos © Sarah Kitson

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