So, have you heard this new Decemberists record, The Hazards of Love? Dude. It’s an hour-long fantasy rock opera about a young squire who once suffered a vexing enchantment by a vengeful sprite of the wood, and whose lady faire — hey, where are you going? Come back! It’s good! Really!
You probably have some idea by now whether you’re susceptible to The Decemberists’ fecund marriage of Elizabethan verbiage, pastoral balladry, and proggy 70s riffs. Five full albums and at least one Stephen Colbert-sponsored “Countdown to Guitarmageddon” into their run, the Portland quintet is now a known quantity. But this is one of those bands you have to see live before you can write them off. Pretentious and twee, sayeth thou? Self-deprecating and gifted with chops wondrous awesome, sayeth we.
At Merriweather last night, Decemberist-in-Chief Colin Meloy led his Beowulf-pack through The Hazards of Love in its sequential entirety, an unbroken hourlong narrative suite. Ballsy, that, but the crowd was with him. As in all rock operas, the dynamic shifts and crunchy power chords count for more than the Tolkeinesque storyline here, and those big, bombastic changes kept the show accessible. After all, Meloy designed these pieces to lodge in your mind after a single exposure, like the songs for a stage musical. And key motifs recur several times.
Bespectacled and mutton-chopped, Meloy remained “in character,” so to speak (he actually sang the parts of all of the male characters in the story), for the duration of the set proper, refraining from greeting the audience until after the dragon had been slain and the princess rescued and the One Ring melted in the fires of Mount Doom or whatever.
But there was still crowd-interaction aplenty, especially from the two guest vocalists who have joined the band for this album and tour, Becky Stark of the Los Angeles folk act Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. Caparisoned for their roles in some kind of elfin wedding gown and a black tunic and silver leggings, respectively, the two pinch-singers turned the theatricality up to eleven. In her scenery-chewing role as the evil queen, Worden recalled Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, flailing and gesiculating as only heavy metal singers and arch-nemises may. Last night, she got to be both.
And what do you do when you have a pair of sirens like Stark and Worden in the lineup? Well, you cover Heart’s “Crazy on You,” naturally. As if to reward the crowd’s patience, Meloy & Co. closed out the evening with an eight-song grab-bag set that found half the band wading through the audience during the aptly titled “A Cautionary Song” and standing on chairs in the orchestra pit to perform an impromptu, severely abridged Hamlet narrated by the puppetmaster Meloy. Okay, so maybe you had to be there. But O! to witness that audience all singing the chorus of the ebullient closer “Sons and Daughters” was to fall prey to an enchantment mellifluous and mightie. Whether you’ve ever rolled a ten-sided die or not.
A slightly shorter version of this review appears on Post Rock.
The Decemberists at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Monday, June 8, 2009
The Hazards of Love, from beginning to end
Red Right Ankle
A Cautionary Song w/ The Tragedie of Hamlet
The Bachelor and The Bride
The Engine Driver
Crazy on You (yuh-huh, that one, from Heart, from 1976)
Sons & Daughters