Even with their new, fairly mainstream, alt-rock-country album out, the Decemberists are still weird. The theatricality is still there, even when playing only pieces of the rock opera from their last album, The Hazards of Love. The eccentricity is still there, despite singing mostly autobiographical songs instead of from the perspective of eastern European prostitutes. And frontman Colin Meloy still uses mostly four and five-syllable words when communicating with the audience. But throughout throughout it all, they still can put on a great rock show.
On tour for their latest album, The King Is Dead, the Decemberists stopped at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City with a mix of old and new songs. This was my third time seeing them live, and the first time outside of their hometown Portland. There's nothing like seeing them in their own stomping ground, with view of their kids playing ring-around-the-rosie on the side of the stage during the opening act, but they didn't disappoint.
Actually, instead they brought a bit of their home with them, with the album cover (silhouetted douglas fir trees) in the background. And Portland mayor Sam Adams even introduced the band--or at least someone who claimed to be him on recording. I'm confident that I was the only person in the theater who understood the significance of this controversial first-openly-gay-mayor-of-Portland who denied having an affair with a 16-year-old intern in order to get elected.
After having two excellent guest artists (Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Becky Stark of Lavendar Diamond) playing on the album and tour of The Hazards of Love, I wasn't sure how they would replace their parts live. I was hoping that Shara Worden would be on tour with them as she stole the show with her crooning voice on the last tour, but I was happily surprised to see that they had found another fantastic guest--Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek. Her fiddling added a great element to the new folksy songs, and she did a wonderful job singing the lead in "Won't Want for Love."
Even though I thought the Decemberists were being more normal than usual, they proved me wrong near the end of the night when Colin Meloy did his tradition of taking over the drumming so that John Moen could sing lead and clown around up front. They were singing "Chimbley Sweep," and they went into a very long bridge that included medleys to completely different songs. John Moen took it away from the "Chimbley Swee" and launched into a jazz song in honor of Kansas City jazz, then he requested that the microphone be passed to guitarist Chris Funk to have a turn.
Now let me explain that the first time I saw the Decemberists (in 2006?), Chris Funk played an astounding guitar, pedal steel, and hurdy gurdy. But he showed next to zero emotion. As one of the best current guitarists, Chris is constantly playing session work for all kinds of other bands and does a great job on the Decemberists' music, but he always seemed so stoic and honestly looked like a serial killer. On the The Hazards of Love tour, he showed more personality than I'd ever seen, but it would be hard to play those killer guitar riffs without it.
This time around, he seemed completely different than my first time seeing the band, when he grabbed the mic off its stand and started into the 80s one-hit-wonder song beginning with "Josie's on a vacation far away.." (you know it). He looked like he was having a ball, so of course the audience did too. Then, my favorite part, at the end of that song, they returned to "The Chimbley Sweep." You couldn't have chosen a more contrasting medley.
This concert was the most fun I've had on a Monday night in a long time. Supposedly Colin Meloy is about ready to publish his first novel (should be good--this guy is way too smart for his own good and graduated with a bachelor's--or maybe masters?--in creative writing), part of a trilogy, so the band may take a backseat in the next few years. Let's hope that it doesn't cause them to take too much of a break though.
Here's what they played (taken from their Facebook page):
Down by the Water
...Rise to Me
Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect
We Both Go Down Together
Won't Want for Love (Margaret In The Taiga)
The Rake's Song
Don't Carry It All
The Crane Wife 1 & 2
The Crane Wife 3
16 Military Wives
The Chimbley Sweep
Eli, The Barrow Boy
The Mariner's Revenge Song
I didn't take any videos that night, so here's one I found online from the Hazards of Love tour of "The Rake Song." This is such a fun song when they play it live--everyone except for Colin takes up a drum, so the place is rocking: