Decemberists Go for Elegant Pop at Tour Kick Off

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The Decemberists' Colin Meloy / Photo by Kathryn Yu
WRITTEN BY
Michael Tedder

On their new album, The King Is Dead, the Decemberists embraced elegantly simple, harmony-rich, salt-of-the-earth folk pop, and judging by last night's tour kick off, this new philosophy now extends to the Portland, Oregon band's live show, too.

Sure, Colin Meloy's heady lyrics still make references to things like the "queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab," but there's a marked shift from the band's last go-around supporting the prog-rocking and complicated narratives of 2009's The Hazards of Love. Then, the quintet enlisted help from high-profile guest musicians (like Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond), costumed dancers, and elaborate stage props (a giant cardboard whale was a long-time staple for performances of Picaresque's "The Mariner's Revenge Song.")

But on opening night at New York's Beacon Theatre, the most extraneous touch was a backdrop of King's album cover and one bonus musician: touring fiddler/guitarist Sara Watkins. Meloy even traded in his padded-elbow professor look for a rustic-ready and album-appropriate cowboy shirt.

The overall restraint allowed the band's keen musicianship to shine through. The pastoral "January Hymn" highlighted Nate Query's understated stand-up bass and Meloy's delicate acoustic plucking. "Hymn" is a simple tale of winter chores that turns into a reflection on the nature of time. The audience stayed whisper-quiet through its performance, turning the song intimate, emotional highpoint of the night.

And instead of rolling out 15-minute epics like "The Tain" -- "We don't do that one anymore," Meloy told a fan from the stage -- the six-piece band moved nimbly between King numbers and back catalog selections calibrated for maximum sing-a-longs and mournful reflection. A run-through of new single "Down by the Water" saw Watkins capably handle the studio version's backing vocals, sung on the album by Gillian Welch, and also the original's guitar riffs, recorded by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck.

Stripping back to the basics -- for the most part -- not only reinforced the Decemberists' tight interplay and Meloy's gifts for melody and emotionally-rich storytelling, it also highlighted the singer's natural charisma. He dedicated an energetic blitz through "July, July!" to the frostbitten citizens of New York, and the audience shifted from hushed reverence into an engaged call-and-response.

Later, Meloy indulged his theatrical side (and his dry sense of humor) during "Los Angeles, I'm Yours," grabbing a harmonica for an impassioned bleating at the end. After admitting that his harp blowing "kinda sucked," he promised that the next gig would feature "the harmonica solo of your dreams," the singer quipped. "You'll think you died and went to Blues Traveler." But that could never be true, for John Popper sang that it didn't matter what he said, but for Meloy and the Decemberists, the message is everything.

Setlist:
Down by the Water
Rox in the Box
Calamity Song
We Both Go Down Together
The Engine Driver
The Bagman's Gambit
The Soldiering Life
Los Angeles, I'm Yours
Rise to Me
January Hymn
July, July!
Yankee Bayonet
Rake's Song
O Valencia!
This Is Why We Fight
The Island
June Hymn

More Decemberists on SPIN.com:
Decemberists' Colin Meloy Eyeing Broadway Musical >>
LISTEN: New Decemberists Album! >>

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