About a month ago, a friend of mine told me he was only going to see Bright Eyes (who played last Wednesday at the Crystal Ballroom) to catch openers Oakley Hall. Though I didn't call bullshit on him, I had a feeling I was experiencing a case of Portland-brand too-cool-for-schoolness (I know for a fact he's a big Bright Eyes fan). Likewise, I mentioned to a coworker last week that I was going to Eugene to see the Decemberists and received a furrowed brow and the emphatic pronouncement "bor-ing."
It would seem these once-music-snob-approved artists have become too popular to be cool. Sure, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst has been deemed "cute" by Sassy magazine and the Decemberists signed to Capitol, but they're still making good music; Oberst just released one of the best albums of his career! Yet Portland seems ready to write them off as has-beens—or at least guilty pleasures. But not much has changed besides the size of their fanbases, and my recent trip to Eugene reaffirmed the notion that Portland may be too insidery for its own good.
Upon arriving in central Oregon's Emerald City, I picked up a Eugene-dwelling friend who was also attending the show. When he shouted to a roommate that he was heading out for the night, the roommate asked who were we seeing. When we replied, "The Decemberists!," the roommate asked, "What are they like?" I have to admit I was a tad surprised, but these are college kids: They're not living under rocks. Later, at the show, a different Eugenian friend told me she hadn't seen the McDonald Theater so packed in ages. A relative newcomer to the band, she mentioned that perhaps it was so full because the crowd was a mixed bag of "college kids, older people and Curious Georges" like herself. And I think the Decemberists latched onto that vibe. As if feeding itself on a giant IV of unpretentious enthusiasm, the band played a set far more energized and tight than its CD-release concerts last fall at the Crystal Ballroom.
I'm not claiming to be innocent, either. When the band launched into a full version of its epic song-cycle, "The Tain," my friend gave me a "this is awesome" look, and I had to agree. But—perhaps because I've been conditioned to support my cred at all times—I couldn't help but want to mention how I'd seen them perform "The Tain" two years ago at Seattle's Bumbershoot festival. But the Eugene audience taught me something: It forced me to check my self-conscious hipster bravado at the door and just enjoy the show. Even during the band's predictable set-closer, "The Mariner's Revenge Song" (a song whose theatrical gimmickry has truly grown old for me), I felt grateful. The Eugene audience wasn't tired of the song. It was excited, and it turns out excitement is damn refreshing—whether it's cool or not.