The crowd that gathered on April 22 for the Decemberists' gig at the Fillmore Auditorium was dominated by college agers who looked as if they'd decided to take a break from writing a paper for their semiotics class or post-grad couples looking for a little intellectual stimulation in advance of the more carnal sort. In other words, smart people into smart music -- and the headliners provided plenty of the latter. Colin Meloy and his compatriots aren't the most scintillating live act, but the gig proved that brains, charm and sincerity can take performers a long way.
The opening act, My Brightest Diamond, set the stage for the evening as a whole. The trio exists to share the music of frontwoman Shana Worden, a onetime Sufjan Stevens associate who's an intriguing performer in her own right. She's blessed with a quirky stage presence and a voice that ranges from a husky near-baritone to the girlish squeals she unleashed amid the concluding "Freak Out," from her 2006 platter Bring Me the Workhorse (on the Ashthmatic Kitty imprint). She was generally less convincing while rocking out, as she did on this last ditty, than negotiating the quieter, darker passageways provided by compositions such as "Magic Rabbit" and "Workhorse," her best number, which found her playing a vintage keyboard rather than her usual guitar. Even when the material didn't entirely come together, however, she was never less than thought-provoking -- a good sign.
Shortly thereafter, the Fillmore's lights dimmed and the speakers echoed with the sounds of quasi-martial chorale music -- a Meloy touch if ever there was one. Once the track had run its course, the Decemberists emerged, clad in the sort of garb that wouldn't have been out of place a century ago. Meloy wore a suit jacket, drummer John Moon chose a dark collared shirt, guitarist Chris Fink topped himself off with a straw hat, bassist Nate Query went with a vest and tie, and organist Jenny Conlee styled her hair in as matronly a manner as possible. From a distance, she could have passed for Frances McDormand as she looked playing the young hero's mother in Almost Famous.
Meloy noted that he'd been ill the last time the band had been in Denver. The players had cut the concert short as a result -- and he promised to make amends by singing and strumming right up to the Fillmore's "curfew." Then he launched into "The Crane Wife 1," a slow-builder from the combo's commercial breakthrough, The Crane Wife, that showcased his narrative abilities. He's an eager storyteller who tempts parody with his earnestness; indeed, the first line he sang ("It was a cold night") was mighty close to the way Snoopy begins all his stories when he's in his world-famous-author guise ("It was a dark and stormy night"), and he loves tossing out ten-dollar words like "arabesque" and "parapets." Yet his keening voice and fresh-scrubbed persona tend to make his ambitions seem delightful, not drab.
That said, Meloy doesn't exactly inhabit the characters he constructs. Instead, he tells their tales as something of an outsider even when he's operating in the first person. On disc, he compensates for such distancing with dramatic arrangements and studio flair that's difficult to translate live. Hence, many of the tunes at the Fillmore reverted to their English folk origins, leaving drummer Moon to provide the lion's share of the dynamics. He typically did so via the sort of tom-tom beats that Jack Black warned the young percussionist in School of Rock to avoid, on the grounds that they were too George of the Jungle. In this case, though, a little jungle boogie was much appreciated.
Unsurprisingly, material from The Crane Wife was spotlighted most often, with the Decemberists doing justice to the epic medley "The Island: Come and See: The Landlord's Daughter; You'll Not Feel the Drowning," not to mention "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)," which featured a duet between Meloy and Worden. (In advance, the group sang a rousing "Happy Birthday" to her; she'd announced the occasion earlier, and even provided a few party favors.) "The Shankill Butchers" was trotted out, too, and if the erstwhile murder ballad didn't have quite enough edge to really stick in the memory, it was quirky enough to get by.
Still, the most diverting offerings were culled from Crane Wife's predecessor, Picaresque. The players put all their affection into "The Infanta," "On the Bus Mall" and, especially, "16 Military Wives," which Meloy transformed into a cheeky variation on an audience-participation singalong. He asked the throng to divide into two halves, with a bit of a gap between the opposing sides, and then asked the people on the boundaries to scowl at their opponents while shaking their fists in the air. At one point, he announced with maximum wryness that the assemblage looked like "a British soccer riot."
In fact, those present actually resembled a bunch of twenty-somethings having a giggle at a well-worn concert convention. The joke was as smart as everything else that went on at the show, which made up in cleverness what it lacked in genuine emotion. -- Michael Roberts