As the lights dimmed, the crowd inside the 9:30 Club waited expectantly for the Decemberists to come on stage. Instead, a narrator’s voice boomed throughout the club, encouraging patrons to picture themselves on a rocky precipice, and praising the construct of the building, reminding everyone that it was built by a team of “nubile eunuchs.” The brief monologue ended as the voice recounted the tale of “six windswept travelers” and the band sauntered on stage and began to play.
At the very least, this was a unique way to open a concert, and at the most it was wildly bizarre. This is what we’ve come to expect and adore from the Decemberists, and I frankly would have been disappointed by anything less.
The band, which released its fourth album, “The Crane Wife,” earlier this year, recently made the jump from indie record label Kill Rock Stars to major label Capitol. Many long-time fans were concerned that this switch would limit the Decemberists’ trademark originality and relinquish the band to a more mainstream sound, but this fear holds no legitimacy in the tragically themed “The Crane Wife.”
Lead singer Colin Meloy’s unapologetically nasal voice chants complicated lyrics that incorporate vocabulary that would make a Scrabble champion tremble. An impressive array of instruments and willingly innovative musicians includes Jenny Conlee on accordion, Chris Funk on pedal steel guitar, Nate Query on upright bass and Ezra Holbrook on drums. A new member of the group, Lisa Milarino, added a surprisingly powerful but not unwelcome presence to the band, supporting Meloy’s vocals and proving herself to be a richly poignant violinist.
As they began with “Crane Wife 3,” the opener to their new album, it became rapidly apparent that the Decemberists are not a studio band. The audience, captivated, joined Meloy during each chorus, intoning “and I will hang my head, hang my head low” like some sort of common mantra. They went on to play all but two songs from their new album, occasionally breaking for an old favorite such as “Song for Myla Goldberg” (“Her Majesty,” 2003), “July, July!” (“Castaways and Cutouts,” 2002) and “We Both Go Down Together” (“Picaresque,” 2005).
The quality of the performance was intensely heightened by the enthusiastically charismatic band members. Holbrook engaged in witty repartee with Meloy, who seemed to be having more fun than anyone else at the concert Throughout the performance Meloy, frequently sipping a glass of red wine, would engage in contact with the crowd. At one point he took a fan’s digital camera and danced around the stage taking pictures of the band, and during another song he borrowed a cell phone from someone in the crowd, made a call and sang into the phone. During the political favorite “16 Military Wives” (“Picaresque,” 2005), Meloy stopped the song to hold a red state versus blue state sing-off. At a later point in the evening, he directed the rest of his band to the middle of the audience, where they performed handstands, writhed like dead fish on the floor and drummed their way through a venue packed with fans.
For the show’s too-soon conclusion, the band played the hauntingly quirky “A Cautionary Song” (“Castaways and Cutouts”), a morbid, balladic lullaby that seemed to be the perfect finish to a prodigious performance. Although the Decemberists are going through changes, their eccentric performance reassured fans that the idiosyncrasies they love are not being manipulated.