The Decemberists, Marymoor Park, Redmond, WA – 8/22
Colin Meloy earlier this summer – photo by Jon Creamer
Sometimes shows get defined by events outside the artists’ control. You can play a pretty and laid back venue like Marymoor Park, scheduling it during Seattle’s dry season and then the fates can taunt you. It only rained one night in the entire month, but that was when The Decemberists were scheduled to play.
One little known fact about The Decemberists is that they shake up their setlists. While there are a few songs that get played every night, the rest of the set fluctuates. There are even rarities. One of them right now is “The Island,” a twelve minute multipart song from The Crane Wife. Maybe it was the rain or being back in their home territory or the excitement of being able to play with Jenny Conlee – their accordionist/keyboardist has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and has only been able to make occasional appearances this year – but after a brief clip of Portland (OR)’s mayor Sam Adams asking us to imagine we were in a cool, rainy northwestern forest, we got the bustout.
“The Island” has four main pieces: a dark instrumental, a pretty ditty about a hidden harbor, an upbeat prog rock section, and a lullaby. Part of what makes The Decemberists so distinctive is the contrast between their music and their lyrics. The third section (“The Landlord’s Daughter”) is an incredibly happy tune. It’s what it would sound like if King Crimson tried to create a traditional Irish jig. It’s so easy to get caught up in that that you might not notice that the song is written from the perspective of someone attempting a rape. The lullaby? That’s an attempt to convince soon to be drowning sailors to fall asleep so they won’t notice the end of their lives.
The contrast displays itself in another way. Their songs were about miscreants and ne’er-do-wells – one of the side effects of seeing this band is that you end up talking like a character in a Dickens novel for a few days – but there was silly banter between them. The running joke on this night was when lead singer Colin Meloy discovered that he could kick out his leg and have a drum sting at the same time and that would be a perfect way to end a song. First he had to decide if the sting should come right after the kick or at the same time, then he would do it at random . At least once he caught drummer John Moen unaware; Moen explained that he was too busy texting to pay attention.
Musically, the songs didn’t vary too much from their studio versions. Sure there were a few exceptions. “Billy Liar” had a sing-along part at the end where Colin divided the audience into halves and made increasingly precise volume requests with his hands for each section. There was a bit of a space jam at the end of “Won’t Want for Love” and a guitar malfunction lead to a long intro to “All Arise!” That’s not really what they’re selling. It was about making the lights as red as possible before playing “The Rake’s Song” (which is another cheerful ditty that’s about a father murdering his kids after his wife dies in labor) and the band doing a silly dance during “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” It was the upbeat “O Valencia!” and the mashup with “Dracula’s Daughter” (self described as the worst song Meloy has ever written). Most of all though, it was about seeing Jenny not just surviving cancer, but kicking its ass on stage with great playing.
So sure we all got soaked during the show, a fact brought home by Colin making a point of observing that they were perfectly dry under the roof. That was a testament to the show. It’s easy to stay and hang out if it’s sunny; only a good concert can inspire an increasingly wet crowd to stick around. The Decemberists passed the dreary weather test.