September 21st, 2006 5:33 pm | by MARK BAUMGARTEN Music | Posted In: Columns, Live Cuts, Columns

Decemberists Play Secret Show, Milk Press for Drinks

decemberists acmeMy philosophy on drinks for bands is this: Buy them. When a band requests a round of whiskeys from the stage, they are making a promise. They are saying, "We would liked to get ripped up tonight so that we can play a fun, long, drunken set. We would like to exorcise some demons. If you help us, we will take you along." At this point, you reach out your hand, shake on it and set the whiskey at the lip of the stage. Sometimes the band just gets drunk and sloppy and tries to make out with your girlfriend. But in some cases, like last night's secret Decemberists show at Acme, the band delivers.

Billed as a fund raiser featuring Alela Diane and the December Brides, last night's show was a warm-up for the Decemberists upcoming fall tour, on which they will be supporting their Capitol Records debut, The Crane Wife. On that tour, which gets underway Oct. 17 at the Crystal Ballroom, Portland's denizens of prog pop will be playing large clubs to thousands of fans, culminating with a show at the 3,700 capacity Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. But last night the band played to about 200 fans in the club and dozens looking in through the window. All were in on the secret through word of mouth or by way of the band's message board and MySpace page, where Meloy announced that the Decemberists would be playing a secret show under their original name the December Brides.

"We were setting up for our first show at Berbati's" said Decemberists leadman Colin Meloy after the band opened the set with "The Crane Wife 3" from the upcoming release. "We went to the Shanghai Tunnel and we decided that the December Brides was a stupid name. Somebody suggested that we be called the Decemberists and, when we took the stage, we were the Decemberists."

But before Meloy and Co. took the stage, Alela Diane stood stoicly with her acoustic guitar and played a powerful set of beautiful folk while half the bar chatted and the other half sat in silence, transfixed by Diane and annoyed by the din.

The Decemberists took the stage shortly after, the bar erupting and then falling silent. Meloy started off with "The Crane Wife 3," and proceeded to lead his band through a two-hour set, during which it played almost every song off The Crane Wife as the crowd mostly stood and soaked in the new songs. Playing the new songs, the Decemberists took another step in their transformation from purveyors of precious lit pop into the crew of a massive prog pop ship, committed to building songs able to draw listeners with a bouncing two-minute keyboard-driven vamp as well as Meloy's pedantic prose.

Somewhere in the first few songs, the first call went out from the band. They were thirsty. In need of whiskey. After two more songs, a round arrived courtesy of me. The Portland Mercury countered with another round, courtesy of the lovely Courtney Ferguson. And then two representatives of the Oregonian rushed the stage with two pitchers. It was an all-out booze war between this town's media slaves, all committing to eating tuna salad for the next week in order to provide six musicians on the payroll of a major label with the fuel that would turn a pleasant celebration into an rowdy free-for-all. Yeah, it doesn't make much sense, unless you were there.

By the end of the set, which also featured a number of Decemberists classics, including incendiary renditions of "The Legionnaire's Lament" and "The Sporting Life," multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk had turned the crowd into a throbbing mass, leading clap-alongs and a chant of "Let them in," which gained entrance for the devoted folks who had watched the entire show through Acme's large windows.

Those who made it in were treated to an otherworldly set of covers for the second half of the set, including the Outfield's "Your Love," sung by Funk, and the Sex Pistols fuck you to its major label, "E.M.I.," the irony of which was not lost on the crowd of fans who will soon watch this band ascend to major label notoriety.

Meloy was teetering beneath the weight of drink, getting lost in a woozy half-hour work-through of Jefferson Airplane's "Wooden Ships." It would be wrong to say that the performance of that song—featuring the Minus 5's Scott McCaughey on guitar, and a beautiful viola solo by newest Decemberist Lisa Molinaro—was good. It was a disaster actually, but everyone stayed on board, even when the wheels started falling away. The crowd stood exhausted and the band swayed in revelry at the end of its most intimate show in four years. As a final act of kindness, Meloy played an electric version of "Of Angels and Angles" from the band's last album Picaresque. One of the gentlest compositions he has ever penned, the song transformed from a ethereal love lament into a pained, gritty barfly's tale, Meloy wearing a three-inch stare while he sang, "As on we go drowning/ Down we go away/ And darling, we go a-drowning/ Down we go away/ Away."

Not bad for a $52 bar tab.

The Decemberists:

Photo by Jason Quigley. Check out more of Quigley's photos of the show here.
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