The Decemberists/Justin Townes Earle The Pageant April 27, 2011
Last night Colin Meloy of the Decemberists upended his reputation as a proggy prig with a (mostly) straightforward set of hyper-literate country-rock. Like the band's most recent album The King is Dead, this stands in contrast to its last show here in 2009 -- a theatrical performance of its classic-rock-Renaissance-Faire concept album The Hazards of Love. With basic instrumentation and a relaxed tone, the Decemberists let Meloy's simple, indelible melodies stand up to the sold-out Pageant.
A voice-over introduction from "Sam Adams, mayor of Portland, Oregon" encouraged the crowd to get summer-camp cozy by shaking hands with fellow audience members and imagining a walk in the Pacific Northwest ("You're wearing a pretty nice parka and holding some strong coffee") before the Decemberists took the stage in front of a backdrop of pines. The band's current incarnation as a six-piece, featuring Nickel Creek nymph Sara Watkins on fiddle and backing vocals, then stretched eighteen songs into a two hour performance.
The band got the cavalcade rumbling with "The Infanta" from 2005's Picaresque, but moved quickly into a three-song sequence from King. Heavily featured throughout the night were harmonica and Jenny Conlee's accordion. Though Meloy described lost R.E.M. single "Down by the Water" as a "song about hooliganism" and "Calamity Song" as a "song about the end of the world," the crowd (at least, where I was sitting on the first floor) was so staid at first, I mistook the Pageant for Powell Hall.
The placidity broke on "The Bagman's Gambit," which spiraled into an instrumental "Day in the Life" style freakout. Watkins stepped up to sing lead over the Heart-wrenching crunch of "Won't Want For Love (Margaret in Taiga)." Proving an able stand-in for Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark, Watkins channeled the mystic earthiness of Stevie Nicks while singing Meloy's lyrics about "mistle thrush."
Thumping benediction "Don't Carry It All" from King was a highlight, with Chris Funk on bouzouki and the crowd coming as close to head-banging as this sort of crowd ever does (unless of course, Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" is playing). On main set-closer "The Chimbley Sweep," Meloy and Funk gave their guitars without ceremony to young audience members, brought them onstage and encouraged them to duel, while the other band members took the only slightly awkward moment as an opportunity to switch instruments.
This playful mood carried through to the extended first encore, when the band performed the campy high-seas drama of "The Mariner's Revenge Song." On this fan favorite tale ripped from Melville and Dumas, the audience was asked to "scream like a multitude being swallowed by a whale" as the band played the characters, rocked back and forth as though on a sinking ship, high-stepped and drowned in unison. It was this spontaneity combined with choreographed pomp that was, (have to agree with photographer Jason Stoff), worth the price of admission.
If the Decemberists is making a play for populist folk-rock cred, who better to grab as opener than authentic purveyor of hardscrabble country Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve? He's got the long-shadow lineage, the hard-living, road-weary pedigree, and all the addictions and demons that Meloy has only read about in Dostoyevsky.
Looking like a gangly Buddy Holly, Earle played acoustic guitar, often accompanied by the fiddle and astringent old-timey backing vocals of Josh Hedley. Earle kept it simple and commanded the stage with confidence and his strong voice, whether singing Lightnin' Hopkins ("Townes Van Zandt said you can't do a set without doing the blues") or his own songs that merely sounded vintage.
"I have a reputation for making very bad decisions," Earle said, a few songs into his spare half-hour set. (One of which landed him in jail and rehab shortly after his show at the Old Rock House last September.) "A history of chemical dependency and incarceration," Earle continued. "Don't bother me none. Here's to knowing better."
The Decemberists Set List: 1. The Infanta 2. Down by the Water 3. Calamity Song 4. Rox in the Box 5. The Engine Driver 6. The Bagman's Gambit 7. Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga) (Sara Watkins on lead) 8. The Crane Wife III 9. The Sporting Life 10. January Hymn 11. The Rake's Song 12. Don't Carry It All 13. 16 Military Wives 14. This Is Why We Fight 15. The Chimbley Sweep Encore: 16. My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist 17. The Mariner's Revenge Song Encore #2: 18. June Hymn