The Decemberists and Justin Townes Earle at the Pageant, 4/27/11: Review

Categories: Last Night

Decemberists-review.jpg
Decemberists. Photo by Jason Stoff
The Decemberists/Justin Townes Earle
The Pageant
April 27, 2011

Last night Colin Meloy of the Decemberists upended his reputation as a proggy prig with a (mostly) straightforward set of hyper-literate country-rock. Like the band's most recent album The King is Dead, this stands in contrast to its last show here in 2009 -- a theatrical performance of its classic-rock-Renaissance-Faire concept album The Hazards of Love. With basic instrumentation and a relaxed tone, the Decemberists let Meloy's simple, indelible melodies stand up to the sold-out Pageant.

A voice-over introduction from "Sam Adams, mayor of Portland, Oregon" encouraged the crowd to get summer-camp cozy by shaking hands with fellow audience members and imagining a walk in the Pacific Northwest ("You're wearing a pretty nice parka and holding some strong coffee") before the Decemberists took the stage in front of a backdrop of pines. The band's current incarnation as a six-piece, featuring Nickel Creek nymph Sara Watkins on fiddle and backing vocals, then stretched eighteen songs into a two hour performance.

The band got the cavalcade rumbling with "The Infanta" from 2005's Picaresque, but moved quickly into a three-song sequence from King. Heavily featured throughout the night were harmonica and Jenny Conlee's accordion. Though Meloy described lost R.E.M. single "Down by the Water" as a "song about hooliganism" and "Calamity Song" as a "song about the end of the world," the crowd (at least, where I was sitting on the first floor) was so staid at first, I mistook the Pageant for Powell Hall.

The placidity broke on "The Bagman's Gambit," which spiraled into an instrumental "Day in the Life" style freakout. Watkins stepped up to sing lead over the Heart-wrenching crunch of "Won't Want For Love (Margaret in Taiga)." Proving an able stand-in for Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark, Watkins channeled the mystic earthiness of Stevie Nicks while singing Meloy's lyrics about "mistle thrush."

Thumping benediction "Don't Carry It All" from King was a highlight, with Chris Funk on bouzouki and the crowd coming as close to head-banging as this sort of crowd ever does (unless of course, Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" is playing). On main set-closer "The Chimbley Sweep," Meloy and Funk gave their guitars without ceremony to young audience members, brought them onstage and encouraged them to duel, while the other band members took the only slightly awkward moment as an opportunity to switch instruments.

This playful mood carried through to the extended first encore, when the band performed the campy high-seas drama of "The Mariner's Revenge Song." On this fan favorite tale ripped from Melville and Dumas, the audience was asked to "scream like a multitude being swallowed by a whale" as the band played the characters, rocked back and forth as though on a sinking ship, high-stepped and drowned in unison. It was this spontaneity combined with choreographed pomp that was, (have to agree with photographer Jason Stoff), worth the price of admission.

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Justin Townes Earle. Photo by Jason Stoff

If the Decemberists is making a play for populist folk-rock cred, who better to grab as opener than authentic purveyor of hardscrabble country Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve? He's got the long-shadow lineage, the hard-living, road-weary pedigree, and all the addictions and demons that Meloy has only read about in Dostoyevsky.

Looking like a gangly Buddy Holly, Earle played acoustic guitar, often accompanied by the fiddle and astringent old-timey backing vocals of Josh Hedley. Earle kept it simple and commanded the stage with confidence and his strong voice, whether singing Lightnin' Hopkins ("Townes Van Zandt said you can't do a set without doing the blues") or his own songs that merely sounded vintage.

"I have a reputation for making very bad decisions," Earle said, a few songs into his spare half-hour set. (One of which landed him in jail and rehab shortly after his show at the Old Rock House last September.) "A history of chemical dependency and incarceration," Earle continued. "Don't bother me none. Here's to knowing better."

The Decemberists Set List:
1. The Infanta
2. Down by the Water
3. Calamity Song
4. Rox in the Box
5. The Engine Driver
6. The Bagman's Gambit
7. Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga) (Sara Watkins on lead)
8. The Crane Wife III
9. The Sporting Life
10. January Hymn
11. The Rake's Song
12. Don't Carry It All
13. 16 Military Wives
14. This Is Why We Fight
15. The Chimbley Sweep
Encore:
16. My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist
17. The Mariner's Revenge Song
Encore #2:
18. June Hymn

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10 comments
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Barry Kelley
Barry Kelley

He sang a little of "Amy" by Pure Prairie League during "Sixteen Military Wives" and a little of "This Charming Man" by the Smiths during "The Sporting Life."

Oh
Oh

Also, what other song did Colin start singing during 16 Military Wives? I can't remember and its bugging me.

Oh
Oh

@mike aSporting Life is one of my favorite songs, it was great to hear. They played 6 songs from Picaresque, though. I wish they would have switched one or two for a Her Majesty track.

Julio
Julio

Nice review! Glad some of you enjoyed "The Mariner's Revenge Song." I guess I'm just not a fan of theatrics when it comes to concerts...couldn't wait for it to end, really.

And why does Colin Meloy sing like someone has stolen his lunch money and given him a wedgie?

happyguy
happyguy

What? You wanted it to end? Why did you even go if you aren't aware of what their live shows consist of

Julio
Julio

Because I am willing to give anything a try. I just can't stand theatrical crap.

Jeff
Jeff

@ Mike a - so you weren't there the last time, when the whole show was a giant rock opera, or the time before when they did the exact same thing during Mariner's Revenge Song, or the time before when he had someone "fly"/crowd surf across the crowd on the floor in a reinactment of the Spirit of St. Louis or every time they have ever played 16 Military Wives (ther eis always the crowd participation/sing-along)?

Oh
Oh

But you're also complaining about the way Colin sings... sounds like you don't like this band at all, but went to the concert anyway.

mike a
mike a

Although I'm not big on "theatrical crap" either, I've enjoyed the Decemberists when they've played here before. This looks like it was a great show with a stellar setlist ("The Sporting Life," wow). Wish I'd gone.

your mom's mom
your mom's mom

If you're not into theatrical crap, the Decemberists are definitely not a band for you.

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