The Decemberists - At the Bank of America Pavilion, Boston, MA - 06/09/09
*Note, none of the videos posted during the review were from my actual show...I just tried to grab the best sounding audience recordings I could.***
The night was sultry.
Actually, the night was far from sultry, but I always wanted to start a post off like that as a homage to that terrible movie, Throw Momma From The Train. To be honest, the night couldn't have been less sultry as really the only thing this night and sultry had in common was oppressive humidity. You know the kind of humidity when it is seriously like 55 degrees out and the extent of your physical exertion is merely breathing and you find yourself inexplicably sweating your nuts off? So much so, that you literally say out loud, in a public place, "Jesus, I'm just sitting here breathing, and somehow freezing my ass off while still managing to sweat my nuts off. What the fuck?!"
The night was like that.
But other than that, the atmosphere really wasn't sultry. It was raw and damp. That really annoying dampness. Where you would just hope it would downpour and get it over with, but it's going to stretch a brief downpour's worth of rain into an eight hour long mist fest that causes your car's wipers to make that wretched flatulating noise as it encounters friction going across your merely damp windshield. A sound so torturous to one's ears that you vow to not use the wipers again. But then, seven seconds later, you can't see shit because of this fucking mist so you have to use them and are again greeted by that repulsive noise.
That was the kind of damp it was.
But perhaps this was Mother Nature's way of welcoming Portland, Oregon's appropriately monikered The Decemberists to Boston. By giving us all a cold, raw, and humid day in the beginning of June. And it was strangely fitting.
The Decemberists, a difficuly-to-characterize quintet, arrived on tour behind their challenging and remarkable concept album, The Hazards Of Love. Fronted by guitarist and songwriter Colin Meloy, he of a lyrical vocabulary that makes Dennis Miller sound like Frankenstein, the band's previous offerings were largely acoustic, almost period pieces. The lyrics, song structures, and instrumentations were almost anachronistic; unheard of in today's pop music world. The Hazards of Love took their previous offerings and mutated it with guest female vocalists, some hard rock bombast (instead of their softer, gentler bombast), and a twisted yarn about a fair maiden, her shape-shifting beau, a villainous rake (not the garden tool, numbnuts), three vengeful ghosts of murdered children, and a jealous forest queen.
The band, and Meloy in particular, have painstakenly avoided discussing the narrative in depth. The lyrics are vague enough for the listener's imagination to extrapolate many different theories and Meloy's insistence on keeping that ambiguity intact really makes The Hazards of Love a bit of a mindfuck, in the nicest way possible.
But before we got to experience the show, largely advertised as being the complete new album played in its entirety, followed by another set of older songs, we had to endure the opening band, Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3. And with the talent on that stage and their smart, almost psychedelic jangly pop, it was ultra-easy. In fact, after their set was done, I lamented that it was too short, which is a rare occurance for an opening band. But when their first song was Hitchcock's ancient "I Often Dream of Trains", about as close to a perfect pop song as you will ever hear, I was immediately sucked in.
With a bit of a husky, British accented voice, Hitchcock and his band (featuring the always stellar Peter Buck and Bill Rieflin from R.E.M. as well as the very talented Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5) flawlessly played their set, including a guest appearance from Meloy on a few tunes. Quite an impressive opener.
While the set change was going on, I looked behind me as I like to do when I am at this waterfront venue. Contemplating the album's obscure plot details, I found it perfect that the night's air created a fog that was like white smoke pall that hid the skyline's buildings. About this time, the houselights went down and the crowd erupted.
First on stage was multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Jenny Conlee (who also donned an accordian later in the show) multi-tasking behind her multi-tiered keyboard. As some of the background music to the album's opening track, "Prelude", was piped in (really, the only bummer about the show) and enveloped the audience, Conlee layed down a delicate keyboard veil that set the stage as the rest of the band assumed their positions.
In addition to Conlee and the bespectacled frontman Meloy, were bass player Nate Query (who adeptly alternated between electric and stand-up acoustic throughout the evening), awesomely solid guitarist Chris Funk (who played a hurdy-gurdy, of all things, later in the show), dextrous drummer John Moen (who surprisingly added a lot of the higher background vocals), and then the two guest vocalists: playing the part of the lovely Margaret was Becky Stark (vocalist with Lavender Diamond) and playing the part of the jealous Forest Queen was Shara Worden (vocalist of My Brightest Diamond). More on those two later.
As the "Prelude" slowly faded out, I got a little giddy, knowing the album that I have grown to recognize as one of the best of the year, was about to get going. Sure enough, Meloy, singing the part of the shape-shifting beau William, began picking the opening notes to "The Hazards Of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle The Thistles Undone)" on his acoustic 12-string, and I was pretty much immediately enraptured. The rest of the band, including some outstanding upright bass work from Query, kicked in about halfway through the song and story was unfolding before our eyes. There was no between song banter. Like the album, each song flowed seamlessly into the next. There was no backdrop behind the band showing visuals spelling out the story of each song. Just the band, a group of seven that sounded like seventy.
After "Hazards 1" came the brief third person narrative bridge "A Bower Scene", complete with some sinister heavy metal stomping, which segued into the part bluesy, part ethereal "Won't Want For Love (Margaret In The Taiga)", which is one of the album's strongest individual tracks. Perfectly sung by the angelic Stark, draped in white from head to toe, and augmented by Meloy's brief presence, it was transcendant live. At this time, I noticed that Worden was not sitting idly by waiting for her turn to sing, but was playing instruments from her position at the back of the stage. Throughout the night, she performed on electric bass, guitar, keyboards, and percussion. A true testament to her talent as a musician.
"The Hazards Of Love 2 (Wager All)" a truer duet than the previous song was again brilliantly sung by Meloy and Stark, their complementary vocals married in tone and emotion. The band was also rock solid, with each member standing out and providing a note-for-note recreation of the album without ever having it sound contrived.
After a brief instrumental interlude ("The Queen's Approach"), the duets between Meloy and Stark continued with the waltzy ballad "Isn't It A Lovely Night", all played perfectly, with a slight minstrel feel. It's important to note that Stark's performace as Margaret was wonderfully sublime and perfectly understated. You could tell she was holding back vocally in points, but that is because of the part she was playing. You'll get a earful of her vocal power later.
The next song was probably my most anticipated song of the night as it features Shara Worden's vocals as the Queen. When I first listened to The Hazards Of Love, I was pretty impressed, largely confused, and trying to wrap my head around the whole thing. But one aspect made me fumble for the CD booklet while driving my car on the highway and that was to see who the hell was singing the part of the Queen, because she absolutely rocked the ever living shit out of every song she sang.
So, here we are with "The Wanting Comes In Waves (Repaid)", a bit of a vocal spar between our protagonist/shapeshifter and his "mother" the Queen. Beginning with a delicate harpsichord part by Conlee, Meloy begins the song down-tempo, before the electricity of the band kicks in. Both Stark and Worden provide the backing vocals before a rocking measure slices through and introduces Worden's Queen to the proceedings. A tiny bit of a thing, Worden moved to the front of the stage in dancing gyrations and from her came this thunderous voice that caused the audience to explode in applause. Her vocals here are other-wordly and her presence commanding. It is impossible to keep your eyes off of her when she sings and she is, without a doubt, the most engaging, dynamic, and powerful female singer I have ever seen (and this coming from someone who routinely worships Neko Case, Johnette Napolitano, and P.J. Harvey).
The song, especially the last few of Worden's notes, were goosebump enducing and easily the high point of the set.
Another brief interlude, inexplicably titled "An Interlude" (who comes up with crazy titles like this?) led directly into the fuzzed out stomp of "The Rake's Song". Sinister, yet accessible, and featuring great percussion work from Moen and pretty much everyone else on stage, Meloy delivers the antagonist's anthem with a brash, accented sneer. Being the singer of both William and The Rake's parts have added to the possible intrigue of the plot as well. A crowd favorite, "The Rake's Song" ends abruptly in favor of the suite's second narrative, "The Abduction of Margaret", which, as far as titles go, does tend to give a little away about what happens. Oops! Spoiler alert!
The sultry "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing" follows, with outstanding guitar playing by Meloy and Funk, really setting the mood, but again, pretty much everything is blown to fucking smithereens by Worden, who sings the Queen with equal parts ease and fury. Her vocal talent, especially live, is immeasurable and playing one of the villains clearly brings out the best in her.
"Annan Water", William's plea and plan to rescue Margaret is next and is an excellent acoustic guitar number, as Meloy's 12-string rings out every chord and fills the ampitheatre. More great percussion here and, it can't be stressed enough, the band is amazingly tight.
I have to give Meloy a bit of a hard time as the next tune, "Margaret in Captivity" begins with a guitar lick that sounds suspiciously like Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive", but since one song deals with the dastardly plans of the Rake and the other deals with riding steel horses, we'll just chalk it up to coincidence.
Again, here, Colin channels the evil Rake while Stark provides desperate and ghostly pleas in the background as the story takes a decidedly darker turn thanks to both the lyrics and the music.
The vocals for "The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)" were piped in and I have to admit to being a little let down by that, as the band certainly had the ability to pull it off live, but it is such a minor quibble in what really was as perfect a live show as I have ever seen.
"The Wanting Comes In Waves (Reprise)", brief, but with impressive vocals from Meloy gives way to the closing track "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)", the final duet between William and Margaret. Gorgeous, hopeful, and heart-wrenching, with an outstanding lap steel guitar solo from Funk, if you don't get a little verklempt listening to this song, you have no soul. That's right! I said it! I got verklempt!
And thus ended the first set. The band left the stage and I looked behind me. And I could see the tops of the skyscrapers again.
I'll keep the review of the second set brief, only to say that it was very entertaining and, considering the heaviness of the previous set's material, my assumption that the band was on the serious and pretentious side were greatly inaccurate. The highlights of the second set for me included the somber "Leslie Ann Levine" from 2002's Castaways and Cutouts, "Sleepless" from the Dark Was The Night compilation, and "O Valencia!" from The Crane Wife.
The band was playful, fun, and self-deprecating during the second set. Meloy announced "Dracula's Daughter" as "the worst song he ever wrote" (probably not an exaggeration), and during the encore, both Meloy and Funk passed their guitars onto people in the crowd to play.
Oh, and Shara Worden and Becky Stark absolutely SLAYED everyone in the joint with their remarkable version of Heart's "Crazy On You".
I greatly anticipated the show leading up to it and my lofty expectations were far exceeded. The band itself was amazing and the guest vocalists just tore the roof off the place. But I went into that show a fan of The Hazards Of Love and left a fan of the Decemberists.
Listen to the album here.