Odds are, The Decemberists would not have been so calm onstage if they knew about all the hype surrounding their arrival.
But in the wake of the enveloping enthusiasm, one should be wary of blindly jumping on the Decemberists bandwagon. (Decemberists frown upon bandwagons; they do most of their traveling by pirate ship). One should’nt listen to the Decemberists with any preconceived notions, because a biased palate makes it harder to get a real taste for the band. They are an acquired taste that cannot be appreciated without an open mind, but this has not stopped an almost cultish following among college kids.
Hailing from Portland, Ore., the band is beginning to extend its fan base outside of college hipsters, finally coming of age with an innovative music video for “16 Military Wives.” But on Oct. 7, the band returned to its campus roots, and its trademark pirate ship logo landed in New Haven amid a wave of frenzied anticipation. The backstage deckhands brought out the band’s set, piece by puzzling piece: the upright bass, the accordion, the various taxidermies and the amplifier atop which sat the mascot pirate ship — without stepping onstage, The Decemberists were already breaking ground. (Almost as ground-breaking as the contrasting Puddle of Mudd album playing in the background. Kudos to Toad’s for picking mood music).
With a rocking energetic start, The Decemberists played just one song before jumping into “July, July!,” the biggest hit before their most recent album, 2005’s “Picaresque.” Apparently, Meloy’s love-it-or-leave-it vocals require very little warm up. Unfortunately, while his voice is full of inflection and personality, it is a little lacking in depth and substance. As a result, Meloy’s thin vocals cannot fill out the song dynamics without the saving aid of an electric guitar. For this reason, the only song that really sounded complete was the last of their regular set, “The Chimbly Sweep,” which featured an inspired freewheeling guitar solo by the aptly-named Chris Funk.
It is easy to criticize Meloy’s voice. It is also easy to criticize the sparse instrumentation (the songs felt a little flat when the drummer took a break mid-concert). On an academic level, it is easy to find fault with the Decemberists’ live show, but they have something else, an ancient characteristic of music seemingly lost in contemporary times: authenticity.
These days, playing a concert has become an overdone production — consider U2’s expensive pyrotechnics and Coldplay’s extravagant yellow balloon barrage during the song of the same name. Instead of excessive special effects, The Decemberists brought enthusiasm and creativity. Anything can happen, and nothing can be expected: Colin broke a guitar string after banging on it with a drumstick; the percussionist strapped on a bass drum and marched cartoon-like through the surprised audience; the accordionist yelled expletives after botching her vocal solo (she had made a bet with Meloy about being able to remember the lyrics); Meloy joked about Labyrinth bookmarks that were thrown onstage.
The most unforgettable part of the show was the fantastical finale, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” Here, Meloy gave very specific instructions to the audience: On cue from the bassist and a fan who had been pulled from the crowd, he said to yell as if “being swallowed by a f**cking whale.” The scientifically accurate method, according to a rambling Meloy: “yell real loud … and gurgle a little too … There would probably be a lot more gurgling than yelling if you were really being swallowed by a whale.” Try it sometime; it is really quite cathartic.
The Decemberists’ antics obviously take some getting used to. Like a hearty shot of whiskey, they might feel slightly harsh going down, but the buzz they leave behind makes you realize it was all worth it.