The Decemberists are not designed to play the Hammerstein Ballroom. The Portland-based literary folk rockers play songs that sound like short stories, intimate in detail and grand in metaphor. Frontman Colin Meloy is a storyteller above all else, and the group’s narrative-driven lyrics engage with listeners on a personal level that few other songwriters approach. But such strength also creates a performance paradox: If the Decemberists woo fans as individuals, how can they play in front of the masses? How can people form private bonds with the music, an essential step to the band’s success, when 3,700 other listeners surround them, as they did in last night’s sold-out show?
“We’re going to do our best to pretend we’re playing at the Mercury Lounge,” Meloy said early on in the set, acknowledging the difficulty in fashioning intimacy despite publicity. Throughout the night, Meloy involved the audience in the performance, partially succeeding in making the room seem smaller. During “Culling of the Fold,” a song cut from the band’s new album, The Crane Wife, he grabbed a cell phone from the audience and pretended to call someone as he sang. When the audience wasn’t signing well enough for his liking, he led the crowd in vocal warm-up exercises. During “16 Military Wives,” he split the audience down the middle of the ballroom and directed the two sides in a singing contest.
Essentially a political protest song, “16 Military Wives” also offered Meloy the opportunity to preach the virtues of voting in Tuesday’s election. Earlier last night, Meloy’s labelmate, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Kevin Devine, employed the same strategy to incorporate politics into his set at the Bowery Ballroom. The acoustic rocker from Brooklyn introduced his song “No Time Flat” by saying it’s “about sex during wartime,” and how it’s indeed possible to “get a boner” in this lackluster political climate, but that arousal just isn’t the same. Later, Devine shook sweat from his brow as he crowed through his stirring state-of-the-Union diatribe, “The Burning City Smoke,” from Put Your Ghost to Rest, which dropped last week. And while both Devine and Meloy expressed hope that the current wartime will soon come to an end, for now it’s Meloy who may have enough listeners to ensure it. STORY BY JAKE TRACER / PHOTOS BY MIA BERG