Live Review: The Decemberists/My Brightest Diamond: April 19th, Riviera Theatre, Chicago, IL
(Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond)
(Shara Worden and bass player)
(Colin Meloy, Nate Query, and Chris Funk)
A seemingly agreeable (but in retrospect, inaccurate) statement was made right before The Decemberists took stage for the second of two shows at Chicago's historic Riviera Theater. The DJ, from Chicago album-alternative radio station WXRT, who introduced the band said the following : that the Decemberists were deserving of praise because they realize that "not every creative idea has to be distilled in 2 minutes and 35 seconds" and that the band's live performance would not be musical "fast food (but rather)...this is the feast."
In essence, the Decemberists played a show that was both a wonderful confirmation of those statements, but were also a stinging rebuttal to those on-stage comments.
The Decemberists are, indeed, an intelligent and ambitious group of gifted musicians and their performance this past Thursday (4/19/07) was a feast for the ears and the eyes. The band opened with an impeccacble version of "The Crane Wife 1 and 2" that started out slowly and steadily. Singer Colin Meloy's guitar sounded crisp and each new instrumental component (guitar, cello, keyboard) was assuredly added to great effect. The song then built to an explosive gallop that was beautiful, cinematic and transcendent. And that was just part one - part two was executed flawlessly as well. The band's harmonies gave me goosebumps and Chris Funk's (he of somewhat accidental "Colbert Report" fame) work on guitars 12-string and pedal was icing on the musical cake.
Or, to put it in a much more direct way... it was fucking awesome!
So, as the DJ correctly predicated, the band gave us fans in the audience a musical feast. Consider my belly full. DJ 1, Haters 0.
But after the next few songs that the Decemberists played (highlights from all three of their albums, but mostly focusing on Picaresque and The Crane Wife), I realized something. The DJ's, whose name I unfortunately cannot remember, statement about The Decemberists being great because they don't distill their ideas into two-minute pop songs, is largely incorrect.
What makes The Decemberists so great, both on record and in concert, is that they combine the chops and instrumentation of prog-rock with the humanity and warmth of folk and alt-rock. The end result is that their music is ambitious, but not pretentious or cold, like the worst of prog-rock. The Decemebrists proved that argument with a immaculately recreated version of "The Island."
But even after all of that, I honestly feel that The Decemberists are at their best when they write and perform 3-and-a-half minute folk-rock songs about sadness, love and loss.
"Summersong" and "O, Valencia" for instance - both are terrific songs, and both are as straightforward, verse-chorus-verse, as you can get. And both songs were definite highlights of Thursday night's show. So I feel it's not so much that The Decemberists are great because they refuse to distill their creativity into two minute pop songs, but rather, the band is great because they know which ideas are best contained to two minutes and which ideas should be expanded to twelve.That's a crucial difference, and one that makes The Decemberists a band that is both accessible and ambitious - sometimes even in the same song.
The band, after roughly six years together, is extremely confident and comfortable with each other, based on singer Colin Meloy's gently audience-bating stage patter (he jokingly accused members sitting in the balcony of being lazy crowd-participates) and good-natured ribbing of his bandmates. This confidence made for a fantasic and charming live performance - the way that Meloy lead the audience in the final refrain of "Sons and Daughters" was particularly noteworthy, along with the encore performance of "The Mariner's Revenge," which was awesome, theatrical, and hugely, hilariously entertaining.
After the show, I felt like I had seen the rare piece of art that was both deeply intelligent and massively engaging on an emotional level as well. The Decemberists may look like bookworms, but they entertain like the best of any of the arena-rockers, all without compromising their artistic ethos for approval of the masses. For any lover of music, it was an absolutely terrific show.
Opening for The Decemberists was My Brightest Diamond. I am probably one of, oh, let's say three, people on this green earth who did not like her massively-praised 2006 album Bring Me The Workhouse. I thought that, as talented a singer as Shara Worden is, her opera training actually worked against her, in that her songs pulled their rock punches when they should have gone all out instead.
Thankfully, her live performance showed no such restraint, as Shara kicked out the jams by emphasizing the more energetic cuts from Workhouse and embracing a more guitar-oriented live sound. Also, she quoted Pearl Jam's "Black," which made this Pearl Jam fan's day. All in all, I was pleasently surprised with the amount of rock Worden brought. I hope she does so more often on her next studio record.
(Jonathan Graef. All Photos by Autumn Notter)