Rounding out my fifteenth year as a Decemberists listener, I was surprised I hadn’t been to even one of their live shows. Known for both their disciplined musicianship as well as their unpredictable setlists, Portland, Oregon’s finest chamber folk meets Irish pirate rock troupe immediately had me smitten without even playing a single note of music.
As the lights dimmed outside the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, an ominous, out-of-tune saxophone cackled as if a free form jazz ensemble were about to come out. A large, sepia-toned tapestry featuring a bemused-looking skull shone atop the stage with gyrating glowing eyes. Except that it was Meloy and his bandmates, prompt and alert, ready to lighten up the proceedings with a warm rendition of one of their latest tracks, I’ll Be Your Girl .
It was a tender start to their close-to-two-hour jamboree, a warm and inviting introduction that actually closes their eighth full-length of the same name. But Colin Meloy is angry. Very angry. So instead of keeping to that chipper mood, they followed with the apropos, sign’ of the times anthem Everything is Awful . It was a chance for Meloy to rile against the degenerates who make national news every single day in America - white supremacists, Donald Trump, you name it. They all made cameo appearances, tucked within the derpy, surprisingly elementary sing-a-long off of their new album. Meloy tried to attract some audience participation, but maybe it was too early in the night to expect the Greek’s mainly middle-aged audience to raise their arms in protest.
After a somewhat predictable beginning, Meloy misfired with his first zinger of the night, suggesting that most of what we’d hear that night was shameless self-promotion for the new album. It really wasn’t. Meloy proceeded to strum his guitar to the tune of Picaresque highlight On the Bus Mall , a favorite of mine that almost had me welling up in tears. But the band was just warming up for what would be a fairly unpredictable setlist, one where they cherry-picked songs from their entire catalog.
In my view, there are two definitive versions of the Decemberists - there’s the side which plays delicate, enchanting acoustic rock, and the side which plays proggy, hyper-literate rippers. There was substantially more of the latter last night, from the bluesy, operatic Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga) to the sauntering, jam-band shuffle of The Crane Wife deep cut The Perfect Crime #2 . Some of the old songs, especially Crime , were reimagined with a bit of that synth sparkle that makes up a large part of I’ll Be Your Girl ; as it concludes, a blaring synth played by keyboard mastermind - and not-so-secret weapon - Jenny Conlee seamlessly segued into the synth-heavy Severed . Up to that point, they had mostly kept to the music with little to no commentary, except for an audience comment about Meloy’s denim jacket that got him distracted, later to have him and drummer John Moen show off their swanky, custom-tailored goods.
After a ten-minute intermission, there was a sizable increase in both lengthy chatter and lengthy Decemberists fan favorites. The Island , another The Crane Wife cut, sounded as rich and as complicated you’d expect, even if it felt somewhat out of place. It didn’t have the same emotional resonance as the quieter, sentimental favorites, from the lovely I Was Meant for the Stage - which got a very warm reception from the crowd - to Castaways and Cutouts solemn lullaby Grace Cathedral Hall . Meloy’s wit was on point, as he apologized to the audience for not including Los Angeles, I’m Yours on the setlist instead of a song that is, in his words, “about San Francisco.”
Meloy was well aware that he played what many would consider their “meh” material, as he joked late into the show. But that definitely wasn’t the case when they tore into Hazards of Love cut The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing , which provoked a loud cheer from most of the audience. And no Decemberists show cannot end without the theatrical hijinks of The Mariner’s Revenge Song , the fantastical sea shanty fable that demands both audience participation and a floating inflatable whale.
All in all, this was The Decemberists in peak form. Almost twenty years into their career, it’s difficult to think of another rock band whose charisma commands with both lighthearted whimsy and rigorous musicianship. We may not have gotten them to play their backhanded ode to the city of Angels, but as the stars lit up outside the Greek, the mood couldn’t feel any more spectral.