Playing before The Decemberists is no easy task, but Merge duo Wye Oak was up for the challenge.
"Good evening. We're a couple of kids from Baltimore, Maryland... hot dog!" declared vocalist/guitarist Jenn Wasner with cool excitement. In light of Wasner's endearing banter and sweet demeanor, the duo's rocking sound is a nice contrast. This is not the stuff of wispy, sugar-coated singer-songwriters. Wasner's voice is surprisingly full bodied, and for two people, there's a lot going on musically. Andy Stack's ability to manage both the keyboard and the drums simultaneously is no small feat.
Wye Oak showcased some new material, including a selection of songs from their upcoming album, which drops on 3/8. "I wrote this song in a sweaty attic in Baltimore," Jenn said at one point. "Now I get to play it in a Broadway theatre. Life is strange."
Following Wye Oak's brief set (and nearly the entirety of a Mumford and Sons album courtesy of the sound guy), the lights dimmed, and a mysterious but congenial disembodied voice boomed through the darkness. "Good evening. Welcome to the show." No, it wasn't The Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy. It was a scripted pre-recorded intro of sorts, allegedly from Sam Adams, the mayor of Portland. Robo-Adams led the crowd in introductions and then began to set the scene for what promised to be a picturesque evening. "I'd like you to imagine you're standing on a windswept coastal rainforest somewhere in the deep Pacific northwest.'" Cue the chirping birds and flowing water.
"OK here we go," said Meloy as the band readied to play. "Night number two." Befitting the strange introduction, the backdrop of the stage was decorated with the silhouettes of pine trees against the sky - much like the artwork on the cover of the band's latest album which just hit #1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart.
For Monday night's show (night 1 or 3), the band had kicked off their set with a number of new songs, but at last night's show, they began with a ten-plus minute song from deep within their discography: "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade."
It's hard to believe that nearly 9 years have passed since The Decemberists released Castaways and Cutouts. After the direction the band assumed for their last two albums, I was eager to hear what their latest would be like, and I didn't have to wait long.
"We have a new record out called The King is Dead, and we're going to play some songs off of that... among other things," Meloy stated after the chords of the first song had died out. "We have a long night together." What followed was a cascade of new songs, interrupted only briefly for the crowd-pleasing ballad "Red Right Ankle."
With The King is Dead, The Decemberists seem to have exchanged the slowly unfolding and meandering prog rock featured on their recent few albums, and turned back to tight songwriting in the more conventional 3-5 minute format. The new material is less frenzied and overblown than say, nearly anything on Hazards of Love. Absent are long-winded instrumental interludes and evidence of roll playing, strange characters, and period pieces. The King is Dead is far more immediate, which is good, considering just how much of the band's set was lifted from the album (only two of the new songs went unplayed). Much of the material may have been new, but it also felt somehow familiar - like a throwback to some of the band's earlier work. Fiddle player and vocalist Sara Watkins (of Nickel Creek) was a pleasant addition to the mix - especially as the widow in "The Chimbley Sweep."
Of course, we still got a taste of that gothic storybook rock. "Alright, we're going to go down the rabbit hole here a little," Meloy said by way of introducing the Crane Wife suite.
Spirits were high throughout the evening. Meloy and the band succeeded in engaging the audience with their dramatic antics and candid banter. At one point, Meloy turned the mic on the audience and pitted the orchestra against the balcony for what turned into an impressively compliant and enthusiastic sing-a-long for the 'la-di-da's' of "16 Military Wives."
The Decemberists followed up their regular set with quite an energetic and theatrical first encore. "The Chimbley Sweep" devolved into a play-off - Colin Meloy vs. Chris Funk. Then as the song continued, both men handed off their guitars to a random audience member, and Meloy proceeded to take a walk around the room, climbing over chairs and steadying himself by reaching out and grasping shoulders and heads as he made his way through the crowd. For the accordion-laden shanty "The Mariner's Revenge Song," the audience assumed an important role. At Funk's hand signal (no more prop whale), the whole room broke out in screams and laments as if being swallowed by a whale. Back onstage, the band fell to the ground and began to writhe around the floor. From their new position, they played with increased fervor until the song eventually spun out of control and ended.
Succumbing to the ravenous applause, The Decemberists concluded the evening with a brief second encore, this time favoring a song from their new album, "June Hymn."
After comparing the setlists from the last two nights, it definitely looks like the band is attempting to mix things up. I only wonder what they'll play to cap off their three-night run in the city tonight (1/26).
More pictures from last night (though none of Wye Oak unfortunately), the setlist and all of their upcoming tour dates below...
Decemberists setlist - 1/25/2011
California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade
Down by the Water
Rox in the Box
Red Right Ankle
Don't Carry It All
Won't Want for Love
The Crane Wife 1 & 2
The Crane Wife 3
16 Military Wives
This is Why We Fight
The Chimbley Sweep
The Mariner's Revenge Song
The Decemberists - 2011 Tour Dates
January 26, Beacon Theatre, New York, NY* SOLD OUT
January 28, House of Blues, Boston, MA* SOLD OUT
January 29, House of Blues, Boston, MA* SOLD OUT
January 31, Olympia De Montreal, Montreal, Canada*
February 1, Sound Academy, Toronto, Canada*
February 2, Royal Oak Music Theatre, Royal Oak, MI*
February 4, Riviera Theatre, Chicago, IL* SOLD OUT
February 5, Riverside Theatre, Milwaukee, WI# SOLD OUT
February 6, State Theatre, Minneapolis, MN# SOLD OUT
February 7, Uptown Theatre, Kansas City, MO#
February 9, Boulder Theater, Boulder, CO#
February 10, Ogden Theatre, Denver, CO# SOLD OUT
February 12, The Wiltern, Los Angeles, CA# SOLD OUT
February 13, House of Blues-San Diego, San Diego, CA# SOLD OUT
February 14, Fox Theater, Oakland, CA# SOLD OUT
February 18, Paramount Ballroom, Seattle, WA#
February 19, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland, OR# SOLD OUT
March 4, Vicar Street, Dublin, Ireland
March 5, ABC, Glasgow, UK
March 7, Birmingham Institute, Birmingham, UK
March 8, Bristol Academy, Bristol, UK
March 10, Manchester Academy, Manchester, UK
March 11, Leeds Academy, Leeds, UK
March 12, De la Warr Pavillion, Bexhill, UK
March 13, Trix, Antwerp, Belgium
March 14, Paradiso, Amsterdam, Netherlands
March 16, Hammersmith Apollo, London, UK
* with Wye Oak
# with Mountain Man