decemberist's show part III: the decemberists (in 4 parts)

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Monday, November 21, 2005
part I
part II

First Part - the crowd: This show was sold out. The Decemberists are a Portland band who have managed to build a big home town following. There was very good energy, even though it was at a venue I despise because it is uncomfortable in almost every regard AND they have draconian security measures to get in....because of the stabbings! (encouraging, no?) It is in Old Town which does not have the most salubrious reputation (in fact, the bus mall, which is the subject of one of the D's songs about youthful hustlers - "On The Bus Mall," for the curious - runs right outside the Roseland). I used to work nearby so the neighborhood isn't as scary to me as it is to some, but it doesn't fill me with happy feelings of delight and well-being every time I scurry through. Not scary, but sketchy - I hope this is a distinction that makes sense outside my head.
The crowd itself was very young, but enthusiastic. I only wanted to get all Kill Bill on about 3 people, which when you consider how many of us were all crammed together isn't bad at all. Mostly, I was filled with affection for everyone because I was so glad to be there and they seemed glad to be there, so it was just a sort of glad-fest! It wasn't just me, either. The guy behind me (who I jumped on once by accident during the Chimbley Sweep) was very nice about it.

second part: the stage: the stage itself was of medium size, although it seemed smaller, somehow, with all of the video recording equipment around. There was a large banner with many birds on it (I believe it was designed by the wonderful Carson Ellis) and there were little fake birds wired to all of the mic stands - fake birds like like I imagine dotty old English ladies wear on their hats when attending vicarage teas or inquests. Sad news for the brain trust standing behind me for the first part of the show: feathers moving in this instance are a sign of air conditioning, not vivacity.
The birds were because The Decemberists' name every leg of their tour - Portland was the last stop on the "Flight of the Mistle Thrushes" tour. Now they are off on the "A Jaunt 'Cross the Pond Tour 2005 " - which is headed to Great Britain, of course. Yes, it is almost too adorable to be borne, yet somehow they pull it off without making me want to roll my eyes forever. That was pretty much it in terms of decor, besides a lot of mic stands and instruments and wires and cameras. The cameras were weird at first - we were standing under the big boom arm of the robotic camera. Eventually, everyone pretty much stopped paying attention to it (except it got right in keyboardist/accordionista extraordinaire Jenny Conlee's face a couple of times and she rightfully flipped it off. I wonder if that will make the DVD)

third part: the band The Decemberists are generally a 6 piece band, but on this night they had their horn section with them, which was fantastic! Colin Meloy sings and plays guitar. He was wearing a red and white striped jacket that made him look like a charming but insane escapee from a barbershop quartet. OKGo is also working the Austin Powers/barbershop look, but they are trending to dandy (god bless their pointy shoes), whereas CM is trending to dorky, which is somehow even more appealing. He is precisely the sort of mushroom-pale, giant-brained, adorable nerd to whom I would have fallen in secret thrall during my college years. The rest of the ensemble is as follows (Hooray for flickr so I can link to all of them!) Chris Funk is a tall gentleman who also plays the guitar (and the banjo, and the hurdy gurdy, and some toy xylophone type thing). Jenny Conlee plays the keyboards and accordion, and also does some important Ghost of Dead Mother harmonizing (and other harmonizing, of course) Petra Hayden plays the violin and sings (along with Jenny Conlee) harmony and also all female ghost parts. She also sometimes performs a version of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights, but she didn't at our show. Nate Query plays both electric and stand-up bass with much finesse. And John Moen plays the drums (and also the sleighbells during the Minus 5's set) and really looks like he loves his job. Individually, I am sure they are all very fine people, but collectively they are marvelous.

fourth part: the show I bought tickets to this show months in advance. My sister kept mentioning what a nice birthday present tickets would be (her b-day is in late October). The last big show they had played in Portland sold out, so we enacted this ongoing drama of her looking up tickets and threatening to buy them herself. I would tell her to knock it off - how is a person supposed to get a surprise present under these conditions, etc, etc. I finally got them the day I bought tickets to see OK Go. Martina also bought a ticket and joined us in hopes of breaking The Curse of The Decemberists (in which she tries to see them perform her favorite number - The Mariner's Revenge Song - and is foiled by circumstance).
As I said earlier, it was a young crowd (lots of under 21's), but with enough of a mix that I did not feel like I was standing in the middle of a high school assembly. We were on the floor in front of the stage, and actually had a pretty good place (and managed to hold on to it) despite the press of hundreds more people. It was really shoulder to shoulder, but for the most part people were pretty decent.
Before I go any further, I feel like I should say a little something about why I like this band as much as I do. It is difficult to sum up, so I think I will resort to a short list:
1) they are smart, but not humorless
2) they sing about pirates, spies, gin-running uncles, dead babies, chimbley sweeps, legionnaires, and so on. Their catalogue is like one long adventure story, yet there is still real feeling and real emotion behind it.
3) They are a Portland band and it is possible that I am responding to some subliminal pdx-sensibility.
4) use of the word 'bombazine', which I feel is criminally underutilized.

When the band came out and started performing their first song, it was one I had never heard before. It was loud, deep, and heavy with lots of vague british-isles imagery. I will confess to thinking they were covering Black Sabbath (I am a metal expert only as far as repeated viewings of VH1's 100 Most Metal Moments, and its sister show 100 Least Metal Moments will allow.) Anyway - it sounded not like what I was expecting at all, but I liked it, even though I was half convinced it was the band goofing on something. It turns out that the song was The Tain, their take on the famous Ulster Cycle . This song is long - they released it as an EP all on its own (which I obviously need to purchase!) After this sort of extended intro, they pounded right into The Infanta which was a very satisfying way to start the show. I know I've nattered on about this idea before - but when you get a crowd who is very into a show, it seems like the band responds with even more, which feeds the's like a wonderful feedback loop where each iteration becomes even more joyful (that sounds dorky, but it's true). I'll be interested to watch the DVD when it comes out and see if it is even something that can be photographed, or if it is something that has to be experienced. Maybe there is something in the air.
Unfortunately, all those happy, sweaty, jumping people made the air inside the venue Very Hot. I think it was right before The Sporting Life, Colin said that they were about half-way through and led the audience in a round of "Rock Show Calisthenics." Right after the stretches and in the beginning of the next song, disaster struck our party. Martina was overcome by the heat. The dastardly Decemberist Curse had struck again! She went to go find someplace to try and get some air and missed her beloved The Mariner's Revenge Song. Of course now it is our sworn duty to break the curse by attending as many Decemberists shows as it takes. The Mariner's Revenge Song is a terrific closer - it is long, it builds and builds, there is audience participation (screaming like you've been eaten by a whale, the irresistible impulse to sway back and forth like the audience is also on a ship in pursuit of vengeance), and a big finish. The band left the stage, but they didn't make us stand out in the crowd and hoot and cheer for too terribly long before they came back out for the encore, which consisted of The Chimbley Sweep (fantastic!) and I Was Meant for the Stage during which the lead singer from the Minus 5 came out and played guitar. This song devolved into chaos (although I suspect similar chaos has happened before) as band members switched instruments, noodled along in 'if it had been one minute longer I would have stopped having fun, but it didn't so it's ok' mini-jam sessions, and finally ended with Jenny Conlee ripping the birds off the microphones and throwing them into the audience. Suddenly set lists, guitar picks, and Mistle Thrush props that were not nailed down were all sailing out into the audience. What really got people into a feeding frenzy though, was when the WHALE puppet from TMR song was thrown into the audience. Poor whale. He was pretty well ripped asunder by the crowd. Those jaws will never be reunited.

All in all (curses aside), it was a fantastic show. I think we'll definitely go see Colin Meloy's solo show in January, and be on the look out for the next Decemberist's concert and the DVD of our show!

Here's a set list (that I copied from the D's message board)

The Tain
The Infanta
The Soldiering Life
July, July*
Leslie Ann Levine
We Both Go Down Together
The Engine Driver
On the Bus Mall
Eli, the Barrow Boy
Colin Solo: Every Day is Like Sunday
The Sporting Life
16 Military Wives
Mariner's Revenge

Chimbley Sweep
I Was Meant For the Stage

* nobody was quite sure where July, July fit in on the list.
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