Wednesday, November 8th, 2006
How different my life might have been if I was 10 years younger and able to capitalize on geek chic as opposed to the… whatever the opposite of geek chic that I grew up with. Consider Portland’s Decemberists, who if they had come along at any other point in history besides the early aughts would be getting swirlies in the boys room rather than packing venues like the Kool Haus, as they did on Monday night. Riding the success of their latest (and for my money, greatest) album The Crane Wife, Colin Meloy and his vagabond players drew a devoted crowd of castaways and cutouts to a venue that I affectionately refer to as “the god-awful concrete box by the waterfront. No, not The Docks, the other one”.
Support on this leg of the tour was Alasdair Roberts, a Scottish folkie who performed a compact set of Scottish folk. Now while I appreciate that a Decemberists audience would likely be far more receptive to someone performing traditional Celtic ballads than, say, a Celtic Frost audience, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they WANT to hear traditional Celtic ballads. Roberts’ set was received politely, though not especially enthusiastically, and he wisely decamped after half an hour. Perhaps in a different, more intimate setting he’d have come across better but if there’s one thing the Kool Haus is not, it’s intimate.
The Decemberists, however, know how to work a room. Any room. This was my third time seeing them, and each time was at a considerably larger venue than the last, moving from the cozy Horseshoe in March 2004 to the mid-sized Lee’s Palace a couple months later (which I didn’t attend) to the 1000-capacity Phoenix last May and now the cavernous Kool Haus, twice the size of the Phoenix. And though each time I can’t imagine they’d be able to draw that many more fans – this is a band whose wikipedia entry links to “idiosyncratic” (okay, not really), each time I’ve been proven wrong. Not only are they able to fill each room with more adoring throngs, but they’re able to raise their energy and level of performance to prove that they were indeed meant for the stage, no matter how big it is.
The touring band again featured a new face with Lisa Molinaro of TalkDemonic, taking the violinist position most recently vacated by Petra Haden, who had also been handling the backing vocals originally belonging to former drummer Rachel Blumberg. And while Molinaro was up to the task on fiddle as well as handling Laura Veirs’ duet duties with Meloy on “Yankee Bayonet”, it was surprisingly drummer John Moen who covered the bulk of the harmonies and excellently so.
But as excellent and essential as the supporting cast are, the star of The Decemberists is unquestionably Colin Meloy and everyone knows it. Probably the unlikeliest-looking guy to make the girls in the front row scream, Meloy was in top form both as performer and as puppet-master. Whether inciting impromptu audience dance contests, leading singalongs or splitting the crowd in half and getting each side to jeer at the other during “
1816 Military Wives” in some sort of metaphor for the political state of America, everyone was just another player in Meloy’s little comedies. Meloy also got into the act, falling flat on his face after wrapping himself up in mic cable and attempting a little crowd surfing though that ended up being little more than dipping his toe in the water and running back onshore.
Musically, they leaned heavily on The Crane Wife including both epics but also delved into their back catalog enough to satisfy the long-time fans (though I’d have killed to hear any of the REM covers that Northamption, MA got. It’s hard to appreciate the breadth of the band’s musical ability until you actually see them play – they had a small orchestra’s worth of instruments along with them, though I was particularly impressed with Chris Funk’s awesome space-age hurdy gurdy, or at least that’s what I think it is. What is that, carbon fibre? And unbelievably, the sound at the Kool Haus was not only acceptable, it was actually terrific – loud and clear and not nearly the acoustic nightmare that it usually is. Veteran Toronto concertgoers will know of what I speak, and believe me when I say it sounded great. This is generally held to be one of the signs of the apocalypse, but if that’s the case then it’s good to go out on a high note, with a great show, and we all go down together.
As the Decemberists carry on with their North American tour, they leave a trail of press clippings and interviews in their wake. Among them – Junkmedia talking to Chris Funk, The Flint Journal with John Moen, and Exclaim!, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Sun-Times and The Los Angeles Times with Colin Meloy.
And do check out the Filter tour blog, which features dispatches from a different blogger in each city on the tour (I covered Toronto) as well as interview tidbits with Jenny Conlee sprinkled throughout.
Photos: The Decemberists, Alasdair Roberts @ The Kool Haus – November 6, 2006
Stream: The Decemberists Crane Wife jukebox
MP3: The Decemberists – “The Engine Driver”
MP3: The Decemberists – “The Soldiering Life”
MP3: Alasdair Roberts – “Drinking Milk Again”
MySpace: The Decemberists
Paste discusses the stories behind Ys with Joanna Newsom while The Village Voice offers up a somewhat more elliptical feature on the artist. The Chicago Tribune also has an interview. The new album is out Tuesday.
You must check out the latest from Blogotheque’s Concert A Emptor video series – Joel Gibb leads The Hidden Cameras and scores of Parisians in song, pied piper-style, along the banks of Canal St Martin in Paris. Fantastique.