November 13th, 2006 5:33 pm | by JAY HORTON Music | Posted In: Columns, Live Cuts

The Decemberists at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago, Nov. 11, 2006

riviera2The Riviera Theatre has the look of an old movie house--one of those silent-era palaces designed to fantastical themes and lovingly restored. Specifically, the Riviera's glowing aqua-marine panels suggests an ornate, 19th-century submarine which seemed particularly appropriate last Saturday. Playing beneath Chinese lanterns and before a backdrop resembling Japanese wood-cut prints, the Decemberists' sound luxuriated in a supremely distinctive swirl of time-swept atmospherics and idiosyncratic storytelling--sea shanties turned operatic pop.

Colin Meloy, our captain, decked-out in white suit and blue tee for an indie Sonny Crockett effect, long ago attained that rarefied blend of solipsistic charisma and theatrical gesture we call rock star, and his ability to control a crowd should no longer come as a surprise: Mishearing a request for 'Waiting For The Clampdown', he launched into a ragged Clash impression. For whatever reason, whether it was the sheer size of the crowd (applause for favorite tunes sounded through the voluminous hall in sections), the eccentricity of his narratives or that precisely-mastered vocal tremolo, quavering 'round the pitch upon command, Meloy still gave the impression of a just-discovered boy genius. Which is one of the reasons, surely, he's so wholly adored.

The Decemberists sold out this sizable venue weeks in advance, and throughout the performance, held the crowds in a hypnotic thrall. Their recent success may have expanded audience diversity beyond the indie faithful: A pair of diehard Chicagoans, with '90s sitcom hair and "Da Bears" accents, who were likely dragged to the show by their front-of-the-stage girlfriends, compared Jenny Conlee's masterful organ work to classic Boston and high-fived, but they all sung along to “16 Military Wives” with equal familiarity and passion.

Considering the extent of The Decemberists' call-and-response technique, you'd expect more dancing, really, however overcrowded the venue or proggy their live sets may have become. But there's a new textural depth to some numbers, especially selections from the band's latest album, (and, famously, their first for Capitol) The Crane Wife, while these songs still never sacrifice characteristic Decemberists' anthemic grandeur. For all the instrumental complexity or literary touches, they're still a pop band packed with hooks borne upon Meloy's majestic register, which is seemingly always melancholy and expectant of transcendence, shrugging toward arena rock heights as a thoroughbred shaking itself dry.

By encore's end, as the audience participated in “Mariner's Revenge Song” (there would've likely been a small-but-heartfelt riot had the band, as threatened, selected another number to close), the mood was close to rapturous. Even after the lights went up and their crew began dismantling the stage, much of the crowd remained, transfixed, as if gazing at the ocean.

Photo: The façade of the Riviera Theatre.

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