“We’re not really a summer festival kind of band,” quipped lead singer Colin Meloy a third of the way through the Decemberists’ 90-minute set on a stage in the middle of Central Park. As if to hammer the point home, he quickly launched into a song about a lover lost at sea. The fact is, Meloy, like every lead singer who has ever said “We love you, Cleveland,” cannot be trusted. The Decemberists are most definitely a summer festival kind of band: from that clean strum of the acoustic guitar and the groove that inspires a slight, rhythmic bob of the head to lyrics like “la di-da, da da” which allow even the uninitiated to croon along. This is outdoor music—night-sky kind of stuff—that sounds all the better with leaves above your head.
In coming to this realization, it seems that we in the audience were well ahead of the band. Those of us thronging in General Admission eyed suspiciously the folks seated in the bleachers lining the back of the performance space (I don’t care how early you got here, does a real fan find a place in the back and then take a seat?) We in turn were shamed by the true devotees, the ones who sprawled themselves on blankets in the park just outside of the venue’s fence. From their vantage point, the band could be heard just fine, though the sightlines did leave something to be desired. I couldn’t help but think, as I walked past them en route to the show—them drinking wine, me thirty dollars lighter in the pocket—that they had the right idea.
Any regret was quickly erased, however, when I saw the Decemberists themselves. For a guy who looks like he’d be more comfortable anonymously browsing a bookstore aisle, Meloy holds the stage well. That “we’re-one-of-you” attitude is critical in the indie scene, but it’s a posture that is exceedingly difficult to pull off because, in most cases, the person making the claim is the one holding the guitar. But Meloy successfully strikes a balance between casualness and control. His banter is genuine, not canned, and he seems legitimately disappointed that we won’t have a chance to visit more as he tells us there’s a strict curfew, so he’s going to keep the chatter to a minimum. It helps that he looks like Skippy, the Mallory-obsessed nerd from ’80s TV sitcom Family Ties. (More generously, perhaps, his appearance could also be likened to that of Ira Glass from NPR’s This American Life. Come to think of it, with that voice, Meloy could fill in if Glass decides to go full time with the new TV version of his show.)
I recognize the harshness of saying that the rest of the band simply serve their roles well, but it’s true. That said, one of the night’s only disappointments was that Jenny Conlee’s vocals were so muted. As a result, the sweet complement on the recorded versions was lost in the live mix. Still, there were plenty of highlights throughout a performance where even the obligatory songs (“July July!”, “Summersong”) were treats. The crowd clearly favored the night’s closing number, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” from Picaresque, and, indeed, it’s hard to argue against a song that featured as a prop a whale that would make Chevy Chase’s Land Shark proud. But for me, the evening’s finest moment came with “The Island”, a three-part, nearly 13-minute song from the band’s latest, long-playing album, The Crane Wife. Hearing the song live makes you realize that it contains everything that makes the Decemberists great (or, if you deny their “greatness,” herein lies at least everything that makes the Decemberists interesting): a build that by rights should have been orchestrated by Daniel Lanois (he of “Where the Streets Have No Name” fame); unexpected switches in tempo and tone that somehow work; and lyrics that could have been cribbed from an album of collected sea shanties.
Admittedly, all of this is apparent from the recorded version of the song. What the live experience reveals, however, is that this band also aspires, in bursts at least, to rawk. Sure, they may be more cute than effective when the heavy parts kick in and they find themselves playing their instruments with heads bowed, hair flying, and shoulders heaving in unison. But that switch you hear two minutes in, that sudden acoustic guitar that moves things from the introduction to the song proper, that’s from Tommy. And the reason why that carnival-esque keyboard midway through sounds familiar: it’s from “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Make no mistake, Meloy won’t be confused for Pete Townshend any time soon, but this is a small band with epic ambitions, and the scope of their capabilities is all the clearer live.
One song that was thankfully absent from the night’s show was “Sixteen Military Wives”, a tune which does its best to ruin the unity of Picaresque. I understand that it’s unusual to mention a song that actually wasn’t played, but just as “The Island” tells us everything that the band does well, “Sixteen Military Wives” shows us the perils of a Decemberists misstep. The song admirably chronicles loss during wartime (“Seventeen company men / Out of which only twelve will make it home again”), but it does so in such a stridently political kind of way that the sense of loss is rendered ineffective. References in the song to “moderate” and “liberal” are distracting on an album that is otherwise populated by whalers and barrow boys. The only “anchorperson” who should ever appear in a Decemberists song is the kind who tends to the iron weight holding the boat at rest, and, while a line like “America does if America says it’s so” isn’t quite as bad as McCartney’s “freedom, I’m talkin’ about freedom,” it’s darn close.
Which is not to say that the Decemberists have created such an insulated world that they’ve forfeited the right to be socially conscious. That’s not true. But, they are capable of being socially conscious in ways that are less overt and more in keeping with the style they’ve created, a point demonstrated by “Sons & Daughters”, the song that closed the first portion of the evening. The tune eases into its social awareness: “When we arrive, sons & daughters / We’ll make our homes on the water,” it begins, only to later announce, “Take up your arms, sons & daughters / We will arise from the bunkers.” But this song also contains a quintessential Decemberists’ line: “We’ll build our homes aluminum / We’ll fill our mouths with cinnamon.”
With only a few additions, these are the song’s only lyrics. Amid a sprawl of keyboard (accordion?) and a military march, they are repeated, over and over and over again, until they finally give way to a chant, a chant that begins in one of the song’s well-placed pauses: “Hear all the bombs that fade away.” This line occasioned the night’s first invited sing-a-long, Meloy urging the crowd to join in unison. And, concertgoers being the obedient bunch that we are, we did—swaying, singing, following Skippy’s lead, pushing the bombs into the distance. It was a moment at which the world that the Decemberists created for us and the world that we left at the door collided.