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Published: 2011/08/09
by Sheryl Hunter

The Decemberists, Mountain Park, Holyoke, MA – 7/31

Colin Meloy a couple days earlier at Newport Folk – photo by Jon Creamer

The Decemberists are the perfect band to perform at the scenic Mountain Park amphitheater in Holyoke in leafy Western Massachusetts. The quintet’s songs dealing with infanticide and double suicides are well suited for a stage surrounded by woods that are deep and dark. The setting also provided fodder for the mystical yarns that lead singer-songwriter Colin Meloy loves to spin. The bespectacled singer addressed the audience as the “people of Mountain Park” and frequently referred to the “burrows in the woods” that they lived in.

Sure, Meloy is one of rock’s nerdiest frontman, and he obviously read a lot of Tolkien growing up, but he has also evolved into a commanding and confident performer. Whether casually bantering about Mavis Staples (Meloy joined Staples onstage the previous day at the Newport Folk Festival), or letting his voice soar in the open air, he held the audience’s attention like the budding rock star that he is.

Meloy led the band through a two-hour set that drew heavily from this year’s “The King is Dead,” a collection of accessible rootsy tunes which was a striking departure from its predecessor, the ambitious folk-opera “The Hazards of Love” from 2009.

The new material provided some of the evening’s highlights and showcased the band’s precise playing as well as Meloy’s knack for a spinning a melody, a skill that was often buried in some of his wordy, complex songs of the past.

The muscular “Down by the Water,” with its jangly guitars and irresistible chorus, owes more than a nod to early R.E.M., while “Calamity Song” had a peppy sing-along quality despite its dark lyrics.

Sara Watkins, who is filling in for accordion and keyboard player Jenny Conlee as she undergoes treatment for breast cancer, provided some nice fiddle work on “Rox in the Box,” a song guitarist Chris Funk introduced as the “best song we will play tonight.” Filling Conlee’s shoes isn’t easy, but the ex-Nickle Creek member held her own as she played fiddle and keyboards throughout the night. She even took over on lead vocals on the hard driving “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)” while Meloy and guitarist Funk wailed in the background.

Digging into their back catalog, the band played all three parts of the elaborate “The Crane Wife,” varying its instrumentation and style to make this one of their more complex pieces of the evening. The band then showed off its zany side during the set closer “The Chimbley Sweet,” as Meloy took to the drums and sang a bit of Christopher Cross’s soft rock classic “Sailing” while drummer John Moen did an impromptu dance.

The theatrics did not stop there – during the encore of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” the band acted out the parts of the characters in the song as the audience was instructed to scream as if they were being swallowed by a whale. The show ended on a quiet note with the beautiful acoustic ode to summer, “June Hymn.”

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