After the Great Club Die-Off of the dot-com years, it's great to see new venues opening again in the Bay Area. The Fox Theater has to be the most glorious addition, and the Decemberists show marked my first visit to this rococo palace in the heart of downtown Oakland.
The Decemberists, Fox Theater, May 20, 2009: I've hemmed and hawed over the Decemberists in previous posts, but I wouldn't see them so often if I weren't a fan. Still, they outdid themselves this time, turning in a great show in support of an album I'm not sure I like--imagine the possibilities then with a work I love. In any case, if I weren't convinced before, I now know I'll see them live as much as I can and for as long as I can.
Before the gig, Trish apprised me of the premise. The first half of the show would be devoted to playing the entirety of The Hazards of Love, in exactly the order they appear on the record. The second half would comprise a more diverse sampling of the band's discography. Additionally, Becky Stark and Shara Worden, from Lavender Diamond and My Brightest Diamond, respectively, had been recruited to lend their vocal skills and other talents.
I wouldn't call myself the most sophisticated music listener. I know nothing about music theory, and I can't name you a chord progression to save my life. I mostly want a catchy hook, a lovely melody, and maybe a beat I can dance to. Thus, I'm not the best audience for a concept album/rock opera, especially one as specific as this release, and I wasn't particularly invested in the record going into the show.
But it didn't take long for me to change my mind. Pure and simple, the band brought the songs to life. Both Becky (as Margaret) and Shara (playing the queen) suited their roles beautifully, and Colin sold the lyrics in a way that didn't come through on the record. I think it came down to simply seeing a band embrace a concept that would otherwise feel far removed. More specifically, it felt like a rock show, the album's origins aside. Of this first section, my favorite was probably "The Rake's Song" for its five-drummer attack and accompanying amplified roar.
If I had to offer any complaints about the show, I hope they qualify as the kind that only a fan would mention. For one, there was the dearth of banter from this typically loquacious crew, but I fully understand why that had to be, given the goal of this show. Secondly, with the new record taking up most of the minutes, the rest of their set couldn't possibly encompass all the favorite tracks from their sizable discography.
They tackled both points as well as they could. After a brief break, the band returned (some with drinks in hand) and Colin greeted us at last. He mentioned dressing a wound during the intermission and engaged the audience in that way that seems so natural to him.
As for the song selection, I can't complain about any show that includes "Grace Cathedral Hill," even if it's somewhat less geographically appropriate for a gig taking place in the East Bay, or a nod to Morrissey's "Angel, Angel We Go Down Together." We saw a couple of nice curveballs too, such as their song from the Dark Was the Night compilation, a track featuring just Colin and drummer John Moen (the latter on vocals), and a couple more tunes joined by Becky and Shana. Finally, I love that the band has settled on "Sons and Daughters" as the closer; I can't tell you how many people I heard singing it on the way out (myself included).
The Decemberists have never shied away from their more theatrical side, so tonight's thespian display was halfway expected. This time, they decided to take the show to the floor, as John, Chris Funk, Becky, and Shana ventured into the crowd and reenacted the sorry story of the Donner party (overwhelmingly familiar and popular among anyone who attended grade school in California) to the tune of "A Cautionary Tale." Chris Funk may have nabbed the best role as the chipmunk witness to this tragedy.
I'm not sure how much of an underminer I would be for mentioning that this segment--and at least a couple of other episodes--reminded me of the Arcade Fire. Then again, you might as well argue that a band can have exclusive rights to, say, jumping off the drum stack or instigating a round of call-and-response.
At the end of the evening, we marveled that we had last seen the Decemberists a mere six months ago--and wouldn't mind catching them again just as soon.
The Other Lives opened the show, and their setup, incorporating a cellist and a keyboard, in addition to drums and guitar, seemed promising. Unfortunately, their music suffered in the venue. Some of the warmth came through, but the harmonies petered out in the expanse.
» hear all the bombs, they fade away
» among all the urchins and old Chinese merchants
» use it tonight