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America’s Semi-Modern Troubadour: Colin Meloy of the Decemberists

The Decemberists with Lou Barlow
Webster Hall
New York City

There is something about Decemberists lead singer Colin Meloy that inspires old-fashioned descriptors, words that haven’t been in common usage since nineteen dickety six.Perhaps it’s his predilection for industrial Victorian storytelling in his songs (see; The “Chimbley Sweep”, “Billy Liar”, the “Legionnaire’s Lament”).Maybe its Meloy’s own use of quaintly antiquated nouns, like “knickers” and “divan,” or the dainty illustrations that decorate all of the Decemberists albums and merch. Meloy comes off as a dandy, and not in the Oscar Wilde, faux gay kind of way, though Montana-bred Meloy does affect a British accent. Meloy is a dandy in the sense that he is a modern troubadour who bops from side to side while he charms the audience with his clever between-sets banter.

After a mellow set by opener Lou Barlow–who’s sounding more and more like James Taylor these days, and I don’t mean that as a compliment–the Decemberists took the stage at New York’s Webster Hall in front of a full capacity crowd.Even the venue is grand in a turn-of-the-century way–the outside is domed and gilded and the inside is plush and velvet–and the Decemberists filled the concert hall with clear, crisp orchestration.

The band, especially Jenny Conlee on the accordion and keyboards and Nate Query on the upright bass, played an energetic and melodic set. Meloy and company focused on their more upbeat songs, which, considering the Decemberists’ tendency towards the maudlin epic (like the 18-minute-long “The Tain”) was a sound decision.Meloy introduced some new songs, including “The Sporting Life.” “This is the story of a soccer player from Helena Montana,” he announced to the audience, before telling a rather modern story for the Decemberists about homecoming games and cheerleading girls.

Then, against a starry backdrop, Meloy returned to his dreamy esoteric lyrics and narrated about a French legionnaire and a Turkish prostitute. His ability to channel several different characters is part of what makes the Decemberists such an outstanding, and original, band.

“This one’s a waltz,” Meloy told the audience before playing another new song, and his spirit was so winning that some of the tattooed masses grabbed partners and began to waltz. Their steps might have been wrong, but there was an unmistakable giddiness in the crowd inspired by the Decemberists’ clear joy in performing.

Lest you think the Decemberists are too ancient and mannered for their own good, they still showed themselves to still be rock stars. Meloy occasionally played his acoustic guitar behind his back. And, at the end of the show, he took that same guitar and started bashing it against the stage, joined in earnest by Query, who started abusing his upright bass and left the bass carcass pushed against an amp, bleating feedback while he strutted off stage. It’s hard to be Keith Moon with an upright bass, but Query certainly tried.

When Meloy came back out for an encore, he covered a Big Star song solo. Against the blue black background, with little lights twinkling through and glinting off his glasses, it was clear that even without the accordion and the bass and the darling cover illustrations and the faux British accent, the dandy stripped bare held the audience in the palm of his hand.