A monument to build beneath the arbors
Upon a plinth that towers t’wards the trees
Let every vessel pitching hard to starboard
Lay its head on summer’s freckled knees
-Don’t Carry It All, The Decemberists
How many “pop” songs are this eloquent and evocative? This is just one verse, but it sums up the gorgeous lyrics typical of any Decemberists song. I saw the band, five members strong, play the first night of many sold out shows at the Beacon in New York last night.
I’d seen them previously three times in Portland, Oregon, where the band lives. The day their instruments were stolen out of a van, it made local headlines. No one fucks with the Decemberists, especially in Portland. Even Mayor Sam Adams recorded the band’s intro for the current tour supporting the wonderful album, The King is Dead. The mayoral salute was bizarre, but fitting for a quirky band (celebrating ten years together) madly attached to their Northwest roots.
Their tuneful terroir was especially evident this go around. Bespectacled lead singer Colin Meloy was clad in a red flannel shirt, and the backdrop was a forest of evergreens (like the album cover—where is Carson Ellis?). They are all gifted musicians, switching from fiddle, to guitar to upright bass. Keyboardist Jenny Conlee frequently played the keys with one hand, and a xylophone with the other, throwing a harmonica in every now and then to really rub it in. She’s almost as entertaining as Tori Amos, and she doesn’t even make mad love to her piano bench.
The new album has a roots or bluegrass flavor, but I hear a lot of REM from Document days and old New Order in the hooks. In a potent encore of The Island, they also channeled a prog rock frenzy worthy of Yes. This is not to say they are derivative. In fact, they treat each new record as a unique experience. I enjoy the ride every time, although I must confess I still miss the horn section smuggling my heart throughout Picaresque (2005).
They played my favorite song, Engine Driver, a painful ballad about unrequited love. They eschewed the crowd favorite Mariner’s Song. Since my neighbor was drunk and rude, I was relieved to miss her pitching back and forth with the faux boat on that one. My only unsatisfied, secret request was to hear I Was Meant for the Stage. Is there any performer who does not adore that song?
They transported me back to Portland for a spell, spinning a sonic valentine to my adopted hometown. I could almost imagine the bouncy spring board floor at the Crystal.
I was meant for the stage,
I was meant for the curtain.
I was meant to tread these boards,
Of this much I am certain.