The Decemberists recreated its sonic specialties wonderfully at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia on April 7.
Formed in 2000 and led by the always vivacious yet studious Colin Meloy, whose trademark shaky vocals and literary lyricism never fail to charm and captivate, folk rock quintet the Decemberists are easily one of the best modern bands of thier genre. Likewise, the troupe exemplifies wonderfully why Portland, Oregon is the birthplace of some of the most colorful, elegant, and interesting music of today. They have released several gems over the last 15 years, including the masterful narrative Picaresque, the complex and diverse The Crane Wife, and the conceptual powerhouse The Hazards of Love. Their latest opus, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, easily earns its place alongside them.
As stellar as their studio output is, though, their live performances are equally extravagant. The band recreates classic tracks almost perfectly while also improvising and relishing any opportunity for off-the-cuff humor and self-mockery. On 7 April 2015, the Decemberists headlined a show at Philadelphia’s beloved Academy of Music,with support from Alvvays, and it was a joyous celebration of their legacy and personalities.
Canadian indie pop fivesome Alvvays was met with considerable applause when they took the stage around 8PM. Fronted by the humbly endearing Molly Rankin, they favored selections from last year’s eponymous debut LP, including “Next of Kin", “Atop a Cake", “Dives", and “Archie, Marry Me". As interesting as these renditions were (despite having a bit too much reverb and distortion), the standout number was “Party Police", an devastating yet catchy lament whose blend of sorrowful guitar lines, regretful lyrics, and bittersweet, angelic vocals evokes the nihilistic despair of early Bret Easton Ellis novels. Despite an unmistakable lack of variety, as well as clear similarities to synth rock/new wave stars like the Cure, the Chameleons UK, Blondie, and Elvis Costello, Alvvays managed to impress and affect the entire crowd. Draped in blue light and introspective postures, they channeled an experience more involving and meaningful than expected.
After a 20-minute intermission, the Decemberists’ set started at 9PM, with Colin Meloy emerging out of the darkness in a light brown suit, complemented by a hipster hairdo, Celtic instrumental music, and a glass of red wine. Behind him hung large white cutouts from the latest album cover. Fittingly, he began singing the opener of "The Singer Addresses His Audience" with just an acoustic guitar; however, he was soon joined by two female backup vocalists, who did a perfect job harmonizing with him. Eventually the rest of the band came out, and with them, a towering curtain displaying the rest of the record artwork appeared, giving the backdrop a 3D effect once completed. Naturally, the crowd went crazy when they finished the song.
Several other favorites from the LP were performed too, including “Make You Better", “The Wrong Year", and “Carolina Low” (which featured a nice solo from lead guitarist Chris Funk). Picaresque also received some attention, with the hypnotic allure of “Sixteen Military Wives” and a heavier take on “The Infanta” standing out. “Rox in the Box” and “Down by the Water” from The King Is Dead appeared too, as well as “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” from Castaways and Cutouts and “O Valencia!” from The Crane Wife. Each one sounded great and delighted the entire audience.
Without a doubt, the two best parts of their set were played in succession. First, they unleashed an exciting suite from The Hazards of Love that consisted of “The Hazards of Love 1", “A Bower Scene", “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Tiaga)", and "The Rake's Song." It was here that the backing duo really shined. Afterward, they played all three “Crane Wife” parts in numeric order (as opposed to the sequence on the full-length, in which "The Crane Wife 3" comes well before “The Crane Wife 1 & 2”). As two of the most moving and melodic songs Meloy has ever written, the poignant pair silenced the crowd in awe and appreciation, allowing the Decemberists to tell the sentimental story with all of its emotional weight and gorgeous instrumentation intact. It was a breathtaking section for sure.
For an encore, Meloy sang the mournful “12/17/12", which was inspired by the Sandy Hooks massacre. While its music is striking but not substantial, its lyrics (including the line: “And oh my god / What a world you have made here / What a terrible world, what a beautiful world”) are ripe with social commentary and personal inventory.
Lastly, the band pulled out “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” from Picaresque. Although it was a predicable way to go out, it was nonetheless enthralling and communal, with Funk instructing the audience to scream in terror when the prop whale emerged to swallow them whole. As arguably the best example of captivating, masterful storytelling in the entire Decemberists discography, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” will always be a satisfying way to end a show.
Aside from the music, Meloy’s penchant for sarcasm shone through during the entire night. For instance, he kept asking the people in the third balcony (which was very high up) to fasten their seat belts and not stand up. He also repeatedly mocked a couple seated in a box seat to the side of the stage; at one point, he asked “the Duke and Duchess of Philadelphia” if they paid for their tickets “with doubloons”. Of course, the entire band pretended to die at the end of the final song, and they stayed there even through confetti to symbolize the devastation -- a very funny conclusion.
The Decemberists are known for their eccentric yet faithful live sets, and the group exceeded expectations on this night. The fact that they represented almost their entire discography, instead of focusing on only material from the new collection, was wise and appreciated, and Meloy’s antics between songs proved how unpretentious yet confident and tongue-in-cheek he is. With a slightly derivative yet unquestionably engaging opening act along for the ride, it was a majestic night of entertainment in an equally regal venue. No one puts on a show or writes songs like the Decemberists, and this concert was a perfect illustration of that.