Wednesday, August 5th, 2009
The Hazards Of Love
The Decemberists and Heartless Bastards at The Kool Haus in Toronto
Frank YangIt was a bit embarrassing running not one but two contests around The Decemberists’ latest opus The Hazards Of Love without actually having heard the record, so a couple of weeks ago I went out and actually got myself a copy of the dang thing. I count myself a long-time fan of the band but haven’t been that taken with Colin Meloy’s more proggish, long-form compositions and Hazards seemed to be the grand culmination of those inclinations and honestly, I was afraid to hear it because I was afraid I’d hate it.
Happily, I don’t. I don’t love it, but definitely enjoyed it more than I’d expected. It moves briskly, the more overindulgent sections don’t overstay their welcome and nestled within the whole thing are a handful of standout songs that would have fit nicely on a conventional album. And the vocal performances from Shara Worden and Rebecca Stark, both in backing and as soloists, remind how good Meloy sounds when there’s a female foil for his vocals. And perhaps most importantly, now that he’s gotten the rock opera thing out of his system, perhaps he’ll get back to his real strengths as a storyteller within a single song rather than the multi-part epics.
But the one place where a rock opera belongs is on the stage, and the touring production of The Hazards Of Love finally arrived for a one-night stand in Toronto on Monday night at the Kool Haus. I had assumed that after their last visit in November 2006 that they’d continue their upwards trajectory through the city’s venues and visit us next at Massey Hall, which would have been ideal for a show such as this. But it was the haus of kool yet again.
Touring support came from Cincinnati’s Heartless Bastards, who’d been having a pretty good year with the response to their latest album The Mountain. I had some trouble listening to the album not because of the music, but because of the mastering – the way it distorted on playback, I was sure I’d gotten a bad copy of the CD or something. Then I (accidentally?) got sent another and again, distortion. I understand that fuzz is part of their sound, but this was something else entirely. Finally getting past that, I was able to appreciate what everyone was and that’s a thick slab of country-blues rock anchored by Erika Wennerstrom’s raw, raspy vocals and greasy guitarwork. That’s also what we got in the live setting, their impressively visceral set going over well with the Decemberists’ (presumably) more cerebrally-oriented audience.
Though judging from the nervous anticipation in the audience, it’s probably a mistake to assume that the Decemberists fanbase doesn’t love the band with body parts besides the brain. After all, as soon as keyboardist Jenny Conlee took the stage to get things started, she was presented with a rather massive bouquet of flowers – welcome back to Toronto! Starting with “Prelude”, she was followed shortly by the rest of the band – much shrieking for Meloy, naturally – and for the next hour it was The Hazards Of Love, non-stop and I think that even if I didn’t appreciate the album, I’d have enjoyed the live performance. They didn’t go so far as to actually act out the narrative, it’s a bit too vague for that, but you couldn’t help but be impressed with how tightly they moved through the piece, with all the attendant instrument and stage changes, without missing a beat. Things did lag somewhat around the 3/4 mark, just as the record does, but the big finish more than compensated. For my money, the best part of the show was the fact that Worden and Stark were along for the tour and able to not only recreate their vocal parts, but add some impressive visual pizazz to the proceedings – Stark embodying the sweet and innocent Margaret and Worden the vampish, glammy forest queen. I’d always known that Worden had the voice for more theatrical endeavours but she also had the moves.
With Hazards wrapped, you’d have to think the band exhausted and so the 15-minute break was well-earned. But let it never be said the Decemberists don’t offer value for dollar, and so when they returned, it wasn’t just for an encore but an almost-full second set, made up of songs new – both songs just-unveiled over the weekend were aired out – and old, ranging from “The Crane Wife” from their last record to “Shiny” off their debut 5 Songs EP, all punctuated by entertainingly rambling banter from Meloy. It seems that having to remain mum throughout all of The Hazards Of Love was a real trial for him, as he was positively loquacious in the second set, chatting and working the crowd as much as singing. The highlight, however, was once again thanks to the Diamond ladies Worden and Stark as they came out to trade verses on a positively ripping cover of Heart’s “Crazy On You”. So so good – check out the video from their Minnesota show if you don’t believe me.
At this point they’d been going for two hours, including the intermission, so I assumed things were done and headed out. Silly me. From the street behind the Kool Haus, I heard them once again come out for an encore and thankfully one of the venue security guys needed some air because he propped open one of the doors and I was able to hear “Eli, The Barrow Boy” and a massive sing-along “Sons & Daughters” finally wrap the evening. Holy cats those guys and gals can put on a show.
Chart also has a review of the show. NOW, hour.ca, Isthmus and The Chicago Tribune have interviews with The Decemberists and NPR is streaming some highlights of their set from the Newport Folk Festival over the weekend as well as their rendition of The Hazards Of Love in its entirety from SxSW in March.
Photos: The Decemberists, The Heartless Bastards @ The Kool Haus – August 3, 2009
MP3: The Decemberists – “The Engine Driver”
MP3: The Decemberists – “The Soldiering Life”
MP3: The Decemberists – “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect”
MP3: Heartless Bastards – “The Mountain”
MP3: Heartless Bastards – “Early In The Morning” (acoustic)
MP3: Heartless Bastards – “Searching For The Ghost” (acoustic)
MP3: Heartless Bastards – “If I Were A Carpenter”
Video: The Decemberists – “Crazy On You” (live in Minnesota)
Video: The Decemberists – “O Valencia”
Video: The Decemberists – “16 Military Wives”
Video: The Decemberists – “The Tain”
Video: The Decemberists – “The Soldiering Life”
Video: The Decemberists – “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect”
Video: The Decemberists – “The Bachelor & The Bride”
Video: Heartless Bastards – “All This Time”
MySpace: The Decemberists
MySpace: Heartless Bastards
Lucinda Williams is in town for two nights at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on October 10 and 11. Seeing as how it’s her 30th anniversary tour, the first night she will be performing selections from her 20th century albums, from Ramblin’ through Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, while the second night will focus on the last 10 years, from Essence through last year’s Little Honey. Wow.
The Black Heart Procession will release a new album in Six on October 6 and are touring to support including a November 5 date at Lee’s Palace. PitchforkTV is also streaming a film that accompanied the band’s 2002 album Amore del Tropico.