On Friday night at exactly 9 o’clock, the House of Blues plunged into pitch-black darkness to welcome the arrival of the “new” Decemberists. After a four-year hiatus, the Portland, Oregon-based band is on tour to promote their latest album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Of course, not every band can return after a break and be called “new,” but the Decemberists earned that title last Friday night with genre-bending music that broke the confines of their defining idiosyncrasies.
Lead singer Colin Meloy—whose easily recognizable, slightly nasally voice distinguishes the band—came on stage by himself, holding a glass of wine. The room lit up to reveal two female backup singers as he began his first song; the rest of the band joined him midway. They moved through their set with the easy confidence of 15 years of experience. Meloy orchestrated sing-alongs with the crowd and advised them to take stretching breaks.
“I’m worried about you locking your knees,” he confided.
Although his tone could be self-important at times, he kept the stage banter going with easy humor. House of Blues hosted an interesting amalgam of fans that night. Bearded men and high-heeled girls integrated with a surprisingly large number of father-daughter duos and older women. They roared throughout the show, but the band didn’t seem to mind.
A mix of old and new highlighted the Decemberists’ new direction. While the verbose folk songs of earlier albums (“O Valencia” and “16 Military Wives”) drew cheers from longtime fans in the crowd, the real gems were the ones that showcased their ability to rock. Guitar finger dances and blues melodies kept the audience in a trance. Tracks off of their new album invited people to lose themselves, evoking the type of rock-induced high that bands like Muse and Radiohead have mastered. Take “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” Starting out simple, with Meloy singing solo, it gradually enveloped the listener into a musical cocoon—perhaps an acknowledgement of the band’s own metamorphosis.
“We know, we know, we belong to ya / We know you built your life around us / Would we change, we had to change some,” they sang. “We had to change some / You know, to belong to you.”
The Decemberists certainly know how to put on a show. The stage’s backdrop featured white silhouettes of naked women with swords and crossbows—the imagery on the cover of the new record. Every person on stage, even the backup singers, played at least one instrument, and the band wasn’t shy about dancing to the music. (Jenny Conlee in particular had some great moves, which isn’t easy to do when you’re holding an accordion).
They outdid themselves with the final song. The eight-and-a-half-minute “The Mariner’s Revenge,” off of 2005’s Picaresque, is a perfect example of the Decemberists’ earlier bizarre storytelling; it’s about a whale who swallows two men. In fact, as the song escalated, an enormous puppet whale came on stage to eat every band member alive. The show ended with the whale triumphantly blowing a stream of colored confetti out of its blowhole. The Decemberists may be branching out musically, but they made it clear that they’re keeping their core. The theatrics are here to stay.
- Creative lyrics
- Good genre fusion
- Professional stage setup
- Some older songs lacked musicality
- Condescension to the audience