"It's like we had to sit through a Decemberists concert to get to a Decemberists concert."
That's how one person in the crowd described the band's July 19 concert at McMenamins Edgefield. And he was dead on.
The Decemberists took the stage as part of the Edgefield's "Concerts on the Lawn" series, performing an early evening show with Andrew Bird and Blind Pilot to a crowd of several thousand people. The band started off by playing its new album The Hazards of Love
from start to finish, then briefly left the stage before returning for a second set drawn from throughout the group's back catalog.
The two sets drew a line under the problem with the band's new prog folktale (progtale?) direction: It's no fun.
For all their strengths, the band's two most recent albums (Hazards
and 2006's The Crane Wife
) take themselves very seriously. The albums are darker and more somber than the band's previous releases, but they're darker by default, not design. It's not as though the songs aren't going to some new morbid place — Colin Meloy's always had his morbid streak.
Take the songs the group played in the second set. Between "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" at the start and "I Was Meant For The Stage" at the end, Meloy dedicated "The Bachelor and the Bride" (about an impatient rapist bridegroom) to all the summer newlyweds, and also played "We Both Go Down Together" (about a mutual suicide) and "O, Valencia" (Romeo and Juliet
-esque lovers, one of whom dies tragically). Decemberists albums have always been rife with death, tragedy and disillusionment— in amongst the joy and the humor the distorted ballads of Crane Wife
It really was like seeing two different bands: The Very Serious Decemberists, indeed playing epic prog songs back to back with no pause for banter or interacting with the audience, followed by Our Old Buddies the Decemberists. In the second set, Colin Meloy performed "Dracula's Daughter," the song he calls "the worst song I ever wrote," before telling us about how, upon composing it, he spilled his glass of absinthe, dropped his quill pen on the floor, heard his parrot squawk, "and God in Heaven shed a single tear." The Decemberists of yore were a great time to see live, silly and relaxed, and the band played that second set like nothing had changed.
The Decemberists are a band that elevates pop music. That's the group's genius, given to them by God, fate or the Great Magnet. The group takes a genre that too easily slides towards the lowest common denominator, and infuses it with sophistication, education and wit. So seeing them play an entire album's worth of songs with only a scattering of catchy, memorable hooks isn't just disappointing—it's like using that proverbial gift horse to plow a field. Sure, you can
if you want to. But that's not what it's there for
Photos by Brandon Seifert