Thursday, February 3rd, 2011
The Decemberists and Wye Oak at The Sound Academy in Toronto
Frank YangIt’s a testament to the devotion of Decemberists fans that even the threat/promise of the Winter storm of the season/year/decade/century couldn’t deter them from making the trek down to the waterfront to see the Portlanders bring their recently-anointed number-one record in America The King Is Dead to town. I do, however, assume that most checked forecasts and confirmed that the storm wasn’t supposed to reach the 416 until around midnight, which is about when the band were estimated to be done. Or at least I did. I like me some Decemberists but I like me not driving into a frozen Lake Ontario due to whiteout conditions more.
At any rate, a nearly full house made it out for the show and luckily, so did the bands as they were coming from the opposite direction of the storm, though they’d already pre-emptively cancelled the following night’s performance in Royal Oak, Michigan and had accepted being snowed in in Toronto for at least a day. These should have been familiar environs for Baltimoreans Wye Oak, seeing as how this was their third visit here in the past 10 months. This time was intended as a preview for their forthcoming third record Civilian, due out March 8, and judging from the applause that net the duo of Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner when they strode out onto the stage, it was evident that their regular visits had been successful at building a fanbase. And making good records has probably also helped. Another benefit of the steady touring is that they’ve become a much more confident live act. Certainly the amount of showmanship they can indulge in is limited by their configuration, but Wasner’s vocals were deeper and more dramatic than I recall – perhaps some lessons learned while touring with Shearwater – and when she stepped out for one of her many guitar solos, they were delivered more theatrically. And while Stack remained anchored behind the kit handling percussion and keyboard duties, the rhythms and tones he was pulling off simultaneously were nimbler and more complex. They managed to incorporate both new material and old into their set, which was cut extra short – about 20 minutes total – when Wasner’s new guitar amp gave up the ghost. Unfortunate, but still impressive and they promised they’d be back in April so they can make it up to us then.
The last time The Decemberists came to town, it was on the back of their folk-rock opera opus The Hazards Of Love and the live production was appropriately grandiose. But just as The King Is Dead represented a stylistic retreat to their folk-rock roots, their latest tour was a back-to-basics sort of affair. Not in a casual coffee house sense – Colin Meloy’s checkered shirt and Chris Funk’s jaunty cap were as much costume as anything they’d have worn on past tours – but without the need to adhere to a particular theme or narrative, they were freed up to, for the most part, showcase their best material from throughout their career.
That the evening would be a romp through their repertoire became clear from the very first song, when instead of spotlighting their latest effort, they opened with “Song For Myra Goldberg” from their second record Her Majesty. And while King would be well-represented over the course of the evening, making up nearly half the set, the liberal amount of back catalog favourites that comprised the other half naturally got the strongest response. One curious choice, however, was “Won’t Want For Love” from Hazards in which the lead vocals were handed over to touring Decemberist Sara Watkins (late of Nickel Creek). Not the strongest offering from the Hazards libretto to begin with, it was even odder out of the context of the record and Watkins’ voice, as clear and strong as it is, lacked the distinct character of Becky Stark on the original – all of which is to say it stood out from the rest of the set and not for the right reasons. Otherwise, selections like “The Crane Wife 3” and “The Sporting Life” were executed with aplomb, and the new songs sounded excellent alongside them.
One interesting facet of the evening was Colin Meloy’s punchy mood; usually his demeanour is akin to a charming carnival ringleader, so seeing him take some uncharacteristically acerbic jabs at some of the louder members of the audience at the start of the show was rather odd. His rough edges did smooth out as the set went on, though, and by the time they rolled into main set closer “16 Military Wives” with its audience participatory singalongs, he seemed to be his playful old self again. As such, the encore double-shot of “The Chimbley Sweep” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” played like a greatest hits of Decemberists live antics. On the former, Meloy commandeered an audience camera to take a series of impromptu band portraits and then swapping places with drummer Jon Moen to allow him to… sing? Freestyle? Rant? I’m not sure, but it was pretty funny. And on the latter, they revisited the Chris Funk-directed whale devouring simulation I remember from their visit to the Phoenix way back in 2005. But hey, the classics never go out of style, right? And though by this point many had already headed home, there were enough who hung around to invite one more encore, King‘s lovely “June Hymn”. And with that, it was time to say goodnight and head out into the just-arrived storm front.
BlogTO also has a review of the show and City Pages talks to bassist Nate Query. The Decemberists also premiered a new song during a visit to kids’ television show Yo Gabba Gabba – Rolling Stone has the clip.
Photos: The Decemberists, Wye Oak @ The Sound Academy – February 1, 2011
MP3: The Decemberists – “Down By The Water”
MP3: The Decemberists – “The Engine Driver”
MP3: The Decemberists – “The Soldiering Life”
MP3: The Decemberists – “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect”
MP3: Wye Oak – “Civilian”
MP3: Wye Oak – “Take It In”
MP3: Wye Oak – “Warning”
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”
Jayhawks record from Gary Louris, though nothing more concrete in the way of release date than the first half of this year.