2011 has been a banner year for the Decemberists. Having enjoyed a respectable and sustained success in relative obscurity, their unexpected Billboard #1 hit with January’s The King Is Dead turned the bookish indie-folk-pop quintet into bona-fide mainstream rockstars, which somehow escaped the notice of your normally alert girl in music until later in the night’s set. This tour sees the band savoring that transition from idealist musicians into career A-Listers. The stage set was minimal: a simple painted backdrop of Northwestern pines, which seamlessly blended into the amphitheater’s surrounding foliage so as to lend one the sense that they’d been plucked from the venue entirely, and perhaps happened upon this group by chance while following a newly discovered trail in Griffith Park one evening when they stopped to listen a while.
Front-man Colin Meloy is a seasoned yarn spinner whose lyrics run heavy on archaic vernacular, peppering the soft melodies with strategically placed, but oh-so casually employed purloined’s here and there. The group has spent much of their decade-long career trying ever-expanding structures: songs, suites, concept albums, yet The King Is Dead makes a U-turn and scales back to self-contained verse-and-chorus, reining in the recent stylistic ADHD to effect an undivided focus on indie-folk. The album has an underlying concept — but the songs don’t collectively trace a single dramatic arc although their covert juxtaposition of soft melodic american folk serenity with content which is, in terms of body count, perhaps the most metaphorically violent catalog in recent music history, remains intact.
While Meloy and his arsenal of intelligent song-craft unquestionably captains the Decemberists ship, Nate Query’s relentless bass work, John Moen’s dynamic percussion perfectionism and multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk’s diverse talents are what lend Meloy’s songs their layered tactile physicality. All that was missing was keyboardist/accordion player Jenny Conlee, who is currently battling breast cancer at home in Portland, OR, but keeps a presence on the tour in the form of “TEAM JENNY” buttons which fans and band members alike were wearing. Sara Watkins, a staple in the Largo folk scene and former Nickel Creek fiddler proved a worthy sub for the absent Conlee, holding her own and winning the crowds support when featured during “All Arise!”
Pre-show shenanigans set a light and ebullient mood, with a guided meditation led by Portland Mayor Sam Adams, who claimed he was hovering over the amphitheater in a floating geodesic dome as he introduced the band. Such mock-epic whimsy has long been part of the Decemberists package deal though never before has this hallmark been so blithely or nimbly enacted or produced results so well-knit as they were in this instance. Is that part and parcel of what happens when your sixth album becomes an overnight sensation? We can only speculate. Early in the set Meloy, donning a tweed-blazer-with-leather-elbow-patches and horn-rimmed glasses, led the nearly 6000-Angelenos-strong crowd on a sing along to “Calamity Song,” which boldly and bloodilly testifies to middle America’s not-so-secret desire for our wanton City of Angels to succumb to a tectonic swallowing whole.
Which leads us to the booze. “I want Joni Mitchell amounts of Chardonnay consumed tonight,” Meloy urged, as the group worked their way through what he called the “early-century mining song portion of the set” in the form of twangy songs “Down by the Water”and “Rox in the Box.” Later he checked in on the people of Griffith Park’s imbibing progress, asking “Have we passed Joni Mitchell amounts of Chardonnay and we’re getting to Crosby, Stills and Nash levels?” Next, just because he felt so close to the audience, the band played an impromptu intro to the catchy, next to last song “O, Valencia,” with a few bars of what Meloy calls the worst song he’d ever written, that he is doomed to play in penance forevermore: “Dracula’s Daughters.” Its the kind of song thats so bad it stays with you until it’s inexplicably likable, and you aren’t even ashamed to admit it. So far, the concert is perfect, with the ideal mix of radio hits off the new album and oldie-but-goodie faves to please all of the people of Griffith Park, even all of the time. To these enthralled, heavily chardonnayed people of Griffith Park, the Decemberists could do no wrong as they closed their set with the crowd pleasing “This Is Why We Fight.” And then it happened.
If there were anything I loathe about live music then its the sacred tradition of the fake encore; I find nothing redeeming in participating in or even simply witnessing a ridiculous ritual in which the band purposefully brings an excellent set to a premature end (the song egregiously still not played), dishonestly says ‘goodnight’ and ‘thank you’ and exits the stage. At which point the crowd dutifully shouts ‘more’ or claps or whatever noisy action is required to ‘convince’ the band that the encore they have already committed to performing, months ago, in a written contract, is in fact something they are only now, this very moment agreeing to because of the overwhelming crowd demand, and after all, they have to give the fans what they want. It feels about as spontaneous as sedimentary rock, or gravitational attraction or matter having a solid, liquid or gaseous state.
But this is LA, where it’s so ingrained that I can’t begrudge the artist their requisite encore, unless they’re a total jerk about it. I do however express scads of appreciation on those rare occasions when an artist actually drops the pretense, which sadly was not the case here. That stupid little faux-encore ritual was made all the more inane when they followed up their already 22 minute encore with – get this – a 2nd encore (still, already on the set list). Yeah. Look, Meloy, just because your 6th album blew up doesn’t mean you should discard all the indie cred you lay claim to. Sadly this display constitutes more than legitimate cause for this writer to assess a one star hubris penalty, which I most emphatically do. Sigh. And I’m a huge fan.
Fun bit of trivia: “The Decemberists” is the novel Tolstoy left unfinished after completing it’s first three chapters. Its hero was to have been a participant in the abortive Decembrist Uprising of 1825, released from Siberian exile after 1856. During composition, Tolstoy decided to begin with what he saw as the roots of the Decembrist movement in the 1812 Napoleonic Invasion of Russia. The result was his celebrated novel War And Peace, set between the years 1805 and 1820. Its final chapters carry the action up to the period of the Decembrists. The actual Decembrists were a group of army officers that led a pre-Bolshevik uprising against Russia’s imperial rulers on 14 December, (Gregorian 26 Dec.) 1825. And while the modern day band’s goal may be something a little more benign, The Decemberists will no doubt continue their revolt against unexceptional music… but sadly, not against excessive fake encores.