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The Decemberists + Jeff Hanson + Zelliope

Chris Bailey
The Decemberists + Jeff Hanson + Zelliope

The Decemberists + Jeff Hanson + Zelliope

City: Chicago
Venue: Gunther Murphy's
Date: 2003-05-09

Photo credit: Alicia J. Rose
By 1:30 a.m. last Friday, the criminally small crowd of about a hundred at Gunther Murphy's had been treated to one and a half post-rock noise bands, one gender-bending folk rocker, a massive, lights-out power surge, and a tragically truncated set by an initially-overlooked-but-now-up-and-coming band of storytellers. The evening opened with the surprisingly good post-rock band Zelliope, a late addition to the bill. They played two sets, the first featuring drums, bass, and alto-sax, with the second adding a middling singer-songwriter to the mix. Zelliope worked better as a trio, enjoying a Mogwai-like sense of momentum that got lost amongst the everyday song structures of the second set. Jeff Hanson, the Decemberists' proper opening act, is a singer-songwriter with a rare sense of flair that makes him stand out from the hordes of indistinguishable sensitive-dudes-with-guitars exemplified by Zelliope's frontman. He plays standard but well-written folk-rock songs, while pouring over unique, incredibly feminine vocals that ride the line between Barney the Dinosaur, Tiny Tim, and Robert Plant, but never, ever sound like Chris Carraba. It is worth noting, too, that Hanson's nervous, aw-shucks, Minnesota-boy stage presence is for real, since it translated into 20 minutes of confusion at the merch table after the show. The Decemberists, whose amazing 2002 debut album Castaways and Cut-Outs was originally released on Portland's Hush Records, are enjoying a second wind, brought on by a re-issue on Kill Rock Stars and some attention on pretentious indie stalwart Pitchfork. The Decemberists are led by Colin Meloy, whose strange story-song lyrics, featuring Turkish prostitutes, Chinese trapeze artists, Foreign Legionnaires, French Canadian bootleggers, and Russian double agents, are inevitably the focus of any reviewer's attention. What's most immediately striking about the Decemberists' live shows, however, is their decidedly throw-back instrumentation: accordion, steel guitar, stand-up bass, and Meloy's own vintage-looking acoustic. When the keyboards came in on their opener, the sprawling, ecstatic "California One", Gunther Murphy's suffered a power surge, shutting down not only the band, but lights in both the back-room concert hall and the bar out front. Meloy was momentarily confused, then momentarily afraid of death by electrocution. But after shaking themselves off, the band launched back into "California One" and never looked back, playing an impressive set that included songs from Castaways, the band's new Five Songs EP, and their forthcoming sophomore effort (due, according to Meloy, in September). If the three tracks they played are any indication, that new record will blow even Castaways out of the water. "Song for Myra Goldberg" is probably the best song I've heard that could be described as "post 9/11," and the other songs tended after Castaways' more "rocking" moments. The evening closed with the beautifully nostalgic "Grace Cathedral Hill" and the wry, vaguely bluesy stomp "The Legionnaires' Lament", which saw half the crowd applauding wildly and the other half walking out the door. The bottom line? Hardly anyone came to see the Decemberists, and half of the people that did show up seemed there by chance. If they come to your neck of the woods, go, go, for the love of God, go.

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