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Published: 2005/09/23
by Randy Ray

The Decemberists, Marquee Theatre, Tempe, AZ- 9/18

I went to this show because I knew absolutely nothing about the band or what to expect. Actually, I wanted to parallel the process of an improv musicianclueless concert attendee hoping for something new, fresh, solid and weird. About the only thing I knew about the band was that they had extremely literate lyrics, a theatrical approach and wit. That and the critics loved them, which is normally a sure sign of Sir Yawnsville.

Well, alright. Sons & Daughters opened up with some cool songs about Ronnie Spector and Johnny Cash. Most of their tunes were quite simplistictwo or three chord progressions with a UK punk feel and a heavy martial beat. The lead singer swaggered around stage between the guitarist and the bassist as the two gal/two guy approach to the band gave it the name and a hard backbeat. S&D just needed a bit more variation for my ears and that idea circulated throughout my mind the entire evening.

The Decemberists had “Peter and the Wolf” as entrance music and that was definitely cool with the audiencea fairly crowded house at the Marquee on this late Sunday evening. A large backdrop with what looked like Minnesota ducks crashing into each other filled the back of the stage as a blue motif colored the stage. As the band entered the stage, they came on slowly, theatrically, as if we were in some pre-World War II theatre in Paris setting the mood quite well. I sensed that the band had found their second homesome stage in some faraway place, a venue unlike others, but very much like so manya scene from the pasta past that The Decemberists effortlessly conjure up through their own literary and sonic explorations.

The show started with yet another martial blastthis time from the headliners: wind-swept cacophony as post-Beat, post-Tom Waits enters the dramarama scene on guitar and vocals in the person of Colin Meloy. Now, don’t get me wrong, Meloy’s voice and presentation can be quite an acquired taste. As a matter of fact, initially, I just didn’t like what or how he was singing. He appeared to be at yet another gig, another horrid evening in the desert and, please, somebody, get me out of here QUICK. Alas, Meloy sort of won me over with his snaky ability to be both funny and profound without tilting his hand too far in the direction of mondo bookworm geek. The rest of the band is very talented, as well: Chris Funk on pedal steel guitar and theremin, Nate Query on upright bass, John Moen on drums, Petra Haden on violin and, my personal favorite, Jenny Conlee on organ and accordion. Conlee quietly pushed the band into foreign Old World terrain that was both breathtaking and heartbreakingshe lent the proceedings a sheer grace that was only matched by Haden’s exquisite violin work. The opening number was the highlight of the show as they rolled into an epic version of “The Infanta.” I had just seen an old French movie, which in English is titled “Children of Paradise.” The film told the tales of many theatrical performers over two and a half hours of pure cinematic joy. To see The Decemberists right after seeing this film was, indeed, quite a surreal experience. “The Infanta” rolled right into that same circus side show extravaganza vibe before leading into a drunken pub crawlviolins, acoustics, brew spew n all. Ghosts of pirates hung from the rafters while I rocked back and forth in my chair by the aisle.

“We Both Go Down Together” had pathos and a very familiar melody that was scratching my brain when my wife turned and said in my ear: “R.E.M. Losing My Religion.” Oh. “The Sporting Life” had a cool Iggy Pop-“Lust for Life” vibe as I tried to shake the band’s influences and was failing miserably. Meloy spoke of his non-role in kid’s soccer at the YMCA in Montanapicking grass while playing a defensive position. I liked the lyrics quite a bit as he told of the times any old bookish geek must go through when they learn that sports ain’t always going to be on the remote control. I, unfortunately, was good at sports and loved to read so, my ass was filled with splinters sitting on the fence between jocks and scholars for many years. In a way, I envied Meloy’s childish predicament and deeply respected his ability to write about it without a hint of remorse or bitterness. “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” was another welcome return to pre-war Paris as Meloy excelled on solo acoustic and black and white storytelling. Unfortunately, the rest of the show seemed to follow this pattern: Old World Dramatis followed by comical big beat pre-war acoustic and accordion camera obscura followed by a brief country number followed by a solo piece by Meloy. By show’s end, I was disappointed by the arc of the program as the band, obviously, knows all about creative structurethesis, conflict, resolutionand yet, they rarely even accomplished that artistic goal within a single song. Perhaps, Meloy and the band need to select a theme, insert a setting with as many characters as possible and color the scenery with one long story that will build to a satisfactory conclusion. I don’t know. Maybe, I shouldn’t have watched that French film before I saw The Decemberists.

Then again you’d think it’d be easy to clear your mind and just go see a band without any prior imagery rotting the frontal lobe. Maybe, it is impossible to go see something new, fresh, solid and weirdand there it isI did have an expectation, after all, and that’s the first term I should have jettisoned. If you want to know if I walked away with anything positive from the experienceI did get “The Tain” EP and it was what I thought they could always achieve. Next time, you come through the desert, play THAT!

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