November 11, 2008

The Decemberists Bring Down the House … Almost

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An inaugural cry of vitality kicked the Decemberists into gear with a tight, up-tempo cathartic march. Rocking to the Barton Hall rafters, the veteran Portland, Oregon band confirmed their reputation as a jaw-dropping live act while reenforcing their status as “independent super-pop” trailblazers. Busting the Sunday evening stupor, the Decemberists hitched indie rock’s scratchy, emotionally piercing dissatisfaction with a charged army of rich organs and inventive percussion.
The band, led by argyle sweater-clad singer Colin Meloy, is in the process of releasing six singles this fall — “Two at a time: A-side, B-side” — both digitally and on 12-inch vinyl. This shakeup of the prevailing music business model “probably isn’t the most financially intelligent move,” bassist Nate Query admits, “but it’s fun and gives us the opportunity to release these really beautiful vinyl records with great artwork.” Rattling cages, saving vinyl, and showcasing album art? Are you kidding me? Long live rock and roll!
Earlier in the evening, as Cornell’s elite pop culture quintile filled the hall, Loch Lomond took center stage. The Pacific Northwest chamber folk ensemble lured the new arrivals into a fairy wonderland of freak folk, echoing both the Fleet Foxes and Devendra Banhart in “Freedom to Travel.” Amidst tales of ancient beauty in the mold of 21st century psychedelics folk, the eerie, precise violin permeated the distorted haze that enveloped the up-and-coming band.
Bringing up the second spot was the hyphy, zouk, melodramatic pop group the Walkmen, who played to the backbone of barely coherent whiskey empowered rattling. In “Canadian Girl,” Hamilton Leithauser spewed emotion toward the mic with support of shoulder bopping bass and a tight, incendiary trumpet. Chimes of new opportunity and an explosion of harmony built to the chorus, throwing the crowd out of their ambivalence. “Donde Esta la Playa” filled Barton to the brim, with the set peaking in energy during the track’s finely crafted two-minute jam. Piano acted as mortar in “We’ve Been Had,” uniting mumbled lyrics with sound. In the horn soaked “Louisiana,” Leithauser showcased his versatility with a gentile vocal touch, recalling a time when he was “sleeping in the sun,” and “thinking about a dream.”
Turning back to the headliner, the Decemberists unleashed the ornate anthem “July, July!” as Meloy leapt in physical spasm. Informing the crowd that the band would pursue “sexier, raspier versions” of selected numbers so long as he kept drinking wine, the singer touted the fruit of the vine’s self-medicational qualities as “just what the doctor ordered!”
Meloy segued into a medley that “chronicles failed relationships and a shop lifting attempt,” weaving his conception of the regret of missed opportunity. A narrative of uninhibited dreams in the face of harsh reality unfolds in the prophetic, subdued “Here I Dreamt I was An Architect,” with the band urging the crowd to sing along because it “helps everyone remember the words.” Dubbing the band’s unreleased tracks as “orphans of consumption,” we are treated to some deep cuts. Though the frighteningly static crowd could cause one to confuse dazed with disengaged, there was little doubt that the visceral assault of Portland’s pride shoved the 3,000-plus ticket holders into a musical splendor.
Microphone swinging wildly, a piano pounds the walls with tension as Meloy suddenly dashedacross the stage, climbs a light tower, and delivered his lines from 20 feet skyward. Despite precariously teetering equipment, the Decemberists take full advantage of Barton’s acoustics in the sinister “The Perfect Crime #2.” The frontman lamented of the irony of flawlessness, beckoning the crowd with a clap and a hand to his ear. Warmth settled over our new age in “The Island,” folk roots on full display as we were begged to sense the savage, raw beauty of nature.
Calling out Robert Novak and an administration “kicked to the curb,” a gentle breeze brews a confident declaration of relevance in “Valerie Plame.” Congratulating the crowd on the best “arm around each other thing” that he’s seen all tour, the vocalist remarked on camaraderie, solidarity and the power of community. With every mention of the words “new” or “change” driving the crowd to roar in self-satisfaction, the Decemberists praised youth for “getting out and doing it!”
A deviant, free flowing, funked up version of “16 Military Wives” was an unexpected twist, and with a high flying kick Meloy screams: “Cause America can, and America can’t say no / And America does, if America says it’s so / It’s sooooooooo!” Whirling the crowd into frenzy, the Decemberists rocked out for a three-minute instrumental that demanded motion. Now totally energized, the crowd shook their skinny jeans, with thick-rimmed glasses flopping on their faces and cardigans whipping over their heads. Out of sight!
The Decemberists tapped “Sons and Daughters” as the “song to conclude and carry out to a new day.” Once an anthem of escape, Meloy described the track as a march to a golden future in which anything that can be dreamt is within reach. “All the bombs fade away” as the Decemberists concocted a world of humble acoustic guitar and soft harmonizing vocal melody that is unabashedly full of hope and the naïveté of youth. Progress. Promise. Indie Super Pop. Hell, they just got my vote to play the inaugural ball. We get to choose that too, right?