The concept of storytelling in songs seems to be a lost art in contemporary rock music. The indie-rock group, the Decemberists, however, certainly counter this notion. Garnering critical comparisons to bands such as Belle and Sebastian and Neutral Milk Hotel, this six-piece band is distinctive in virtually ever aspect of their musical approach, from vocal quality to their amazing employment of vocabulary, to the subject matter of their songs. Seafaring tales, sporting narratives, and political commentaries are all present in the Decemberists catalogue of music.
With their first release, the 5 songs EP, in 2001, the band began its rise to popularity that now allows them to play before thousands of fans. At their October 7 Electric Factory concert, Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy acknowledged the band’s progress when he noted that the group has come a long way from playing small clubs to packing out the Electric Factory. Their rise in popularity can be attributed in part to their live performances.
Part of the allure of the Decemberists show stems from the fact that the band doesn’t take themselves seriously – at all. Rather than presenting themselves as elitists or pretentious musicians, as they surely could do, they appear to be people who are down to earth and who could provide anyone with hours of amusement off stage.
Nothing, it seemed, was off limits. At one point several members of the band ran around stage, and Meloy even climbed onto the seating area of the venue and walked across it for several yards. During the number, “The Chimbley Sweep,” Meloy and bassist Nate Query had a “sword fight,” using the bows of the violin and upright bass to stage a fight to the death. After the duel, which interrupted the song midway, Meloy completely silenced the crowd and the members of his band, as everyone in the audience and the band sat down at his beckoning.
Then, slowly, the other members of the band arose and began playing the song where they had let off. Simultaneously, the audience jumped up and was livelier than ever before.
As can be expected, there were certain songs that were highly anticipated by the crowd, and which became evident based on extreme audience participation. “We Both Go Down Together,” “The Sporting Life,” and “Sixteen Military Wives” – all off the band’s most recent release Picaresque – were noteworthy crowd-pleasers.
The fan base of the Decemberists is quite vast, as young teenagers through middle-aged men and women comprised a notable portion of the audience. No matter the age, it seemed that there was not a single person in attendance who was not either clapping, dancing, swaying, or singing to every song which was performed.
During “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” a tale about two mariners who get swallowed by a whale and survive in its stomach, crowd participation came as a result from the suggestion of the band. Fans screamed on cue when Chris Funk, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, went behind the amplifiers and emerged with two huge cutouts of a whale’s jaws, which he proceeded to open and close, as a sign for the audience to scream, wail, and moan.
More than simply a fun band that provides hours of entertainment for the fans, the Decemberists are musically sound. Colin Meloy seemed to never miss a note, and the beautiful harmonization emanating primarily from violinist Petra Haden was a perfect compliment to Meloy’s unique tonal quality. The other members of the band were fantastic as well, employing a variety of instruments, from the accordion, to the mandolin, to the pedal lap steel guitar.
Meloy, and all the members of the Decemberists for that matter, proved to be not only masters of the live concert, but also masters of the ability to perform near-perfect renditions of their studio releases. All in all, this makes them one of the best live attractions in current rock music.
Tim Gerz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.