During the first night of two at The Palace Theater, The Decemberists commanded the stage, and the attention of the audience, with the ease and calm of a veteran band, which they have become. They are simply a good band with good songs. Sometimes that is all it takes.
After a rockus classical intro, the band launched into “Everything Is Awful,” one of the highlights from the new album, and ended the song with a seemingly sarcastic blast of streamers and confetti into the crowd. The spotlight had literal trouble keeping up with singer/songwriter Colin Meloy, he was often cast in darkness during the early part of the show. Other than that small detail, the presentation at The Palace was excellent. The sound in the venue is great for the sort of folk-rock The Decemberists dish out, every note from the multi-instrumental group was audible and clear.
The Decemberists have moved elegantly through a career marked by conscious independence and hip originality. For years, they were everyone’s favorite band no one had heard of, producing some of their best work and honing their sound while flying under the radar of the mainstream. They ascended through the ranks of indy rock fame, releasing strange, melancholy albums focused on days-of-yore subjects and sound.
“We love you, Jenny!” someone called out from the rafters after the band had settled in. Keyboardist and accordion player Jenny Conlee smiled coyly back as Meloy quietly asked, “Did you show ’em your cape?”
She danced out to center stage to show off a shinny silver cape. Then, it was back to business. Rounding out the group Trading in any larger theatrics for streamlined musical magic, the group paused only long enough to switch instruments and for Meloy to introduce the next tune. “This one is part of the ‘Ghost Stories’ portion of the set,” he remarked before launching into “Leslie Anne Levine.”
Stellar violinist and Duluth native Gaelynn Lea opened the show and will play again on Saturday night. After shaking off some initial nerves in front of the capacity crowd, Lea and her 2 piece accompaniment wove a tapestry of heartfelt lyrics, looped violin melodies, and traditional strumming and percussion into a passionate and charming blanket of sound. She played songs from her upcoming album and showcased the talent that recently won her the Tiny Desk Contest. Ms. Lea also sat in with her “favorite band” later in the night.
The Decemberists have always moved according to their own motivations. For example, as their notoriety increased after the release of their second album, their followup was a twenty-minute epic single called The Tain. While breaking convention and maintaining an integrity that sometimes keeps groups from larger fame, The Decemberists have defied that logic. After moving from the indy label Kill Rock Stars to Capital Records and finally achieving a number one album, aptly titled The King is Dead, the group has continued to maintain their style and fresh attitude, even as they enjoy a wider, more diverse audience. They still manage to satisfy fans both new and old.
Their latest album, I’ll Be Your Girl, has been called a departure and, in many ways, it is. While the sound is obviously more pop-oriented, a step away from The Decemberists folk-Americana roots, all the things that make the band unique are still present. Interesting, layered arrangements and quirky vocal harmonies still abound, though filtered through a more electronic vibe. The band always seems cohesive, while still allowing room for Conlee, bassist Nate Query, drummer John Moen, and stoic guitar virtuoso Chris Funk to display their personal talents, which are many. Colin Meloy’s style is becoming one of this generation’s most iconic and recognizable voices, and there is still plenty of nostalgic storytelling on songs like “Cutting Stone.” The band played quite a few tracks from the new album, including the title song and new hits like “Starwatcher,” “Once in My Life,” and the singalong, “We All Die Young.”
The real departure of the new material is from the open intimacy so obvious in some of the band’s earlier work. The lyrics are more direct, frank, without metaphor, including lines like, “For once in my life, could just something go right” and “everything is awful” as repeating refrains. The new record seems tailored to the times, both in commentary and presentation. At its best, it looks to critique the click-happy, black-and-white opinions of Trump-era America, and at it worst it feels like the band has put up a wall, using slick production and more accessible messages to show they worked harder to present a less personal product. Perhaps a consequence of their growing fame, I feel less like the band is playing directly to me. This quality, however, is stripped away when the group plays the songs live and their passion is on display. The deep emotional core of the show and the new album (and one of my new favorite songs) came early on when Meloy announced a ‘sing-along suicide song’ and the launched into the wrenching “Sucker’s Prayer.”
Both shows sold out, with people piled up all the way to the back of the hall right up until the encores (yes, plural) when the band played the Hamildrops cut “Ben Franklin’s Song” and then unleashed an inflatable whale into the crowd.
Saturday night saw some changes to the show. Lea’s band expanded to a five-piece, adding drums and bass and deepening the effect of her message of love and larger connection. The Decemberists switched out much of their set, leaving the new songs intact but dusting off a few old favorites including “Calamity Song,” which Meloy confessed he was surprised they made it through. Also included on night two was a mid-set, solo performance from Meloy of “Red Right Ankle,” one of my personal favorites.