Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Maritime Evening

Yes, it has been some time since last I blogged, but the past week has just left me all a-quiver with excitement, such that my typing fingers were vibrating like piano wires, thwarting my every attempt at blogging. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Last Tuesday, mi hermano and I braved a cold, rainy, March-like June evening to see The Decemberists at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston. I had not known it was an outdoor venue, but at least there was a roof. As Colin Meloy (singer for The Decemberists) explained it during some between-song banter, “Weatherwise, it’s June, apparently, and it’s summer in other places. We’ve been there, we’ve lived through it, and we’ve come to tell you Northern people [they are from Portland, Oregon] that there’s summer out there to be had.”

Despite the weather, it was quite possibly the best concert I have ever been to.

First of all, to my utter surprise, the opening act was Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 whom we had tickets to see back in April but who cancelled mere hours before showtime. The Venus 3 are guitarist Peter Buck (R.E.M.), bassist Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh fellows, The Minus 5), and Bill Rieflin (Ministry). They did a stripped down 32-minute set comprising a handful of songs from the new album (Goodnight Oslo), and two older songs—“Adventure Rocketship” from OlĂ© Tarantula, and “I Often Dream of Trains,” which dates back to 1984’s album of the same name. Interesting, Robyn messed up the opening lyrics to “I Often Dream of Trains.” His between-song banter was his usual stream-of-consciousness, although he was a bit less verbose than he usually is when he headlines.

Colin Meloy (who sings backup on a few tracks on Goodnight Oslo) joined in for those self-same tracks. (Robyn, by the way, plays guitar on one track on the new Decemberists album.)

The song list was:

“I Often Dream of Trains”
“What You Is”
“Adventure Rocketship”
“Saturday Groovers”
“Hurry for the Sky”
“I’m Falling”
“Up to Our Nex”
“Goodnight Oslo”

The short set list was to make room in the evening for what were two one-hour sets by The Decemberists. The first set was the entirety of the new album, The Hazards of Love. The reason for this is that the album is a “concept album” (or a “rock opera,” although I have always hated that term). It’s one long, unbroken piece of music (well, it’s broken if you listen to it on an iPod because the header data that the MP3 format uses makes it nearly impossible to segue tracks; score one for CDs). The story is a narrative; indeed, almost all of Colin Meloy’s songs are stories—he has a degree in creative writing, actually—and over the past two albums have been experimenting with longer-form songs. Originally, they were largely folk-based (their early albums I once described as sounding like pirate folk music, or if Herman Melville fronted Fairport Convention) but have been gradually adding more and more classic rock and even progressive-rock elements. (Their last record The Crane Wife sounds like it could be the long lost Jethro Tull album recorded between Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play.)

Anyway, story of The Hazards of Love runs something like this: Our heroine Margaret is out wandering in the taiga and comes across a wounded fawn. She helps it out, and the fawn immediately shapeshifts into a human male (William). The choice of men must be decidedly limited in Margaret’s part of the world, because she immediately falls in love with him—after all, what could be more attractive than someone who had been wildlife only scant seconds earlier? They get up to some wild life of their own, and by Track 3 Margaret is pregnant (the narrative skirts questions of whether the child will be half-human/half-fawn). They are in love, but one obstacle appears in the form of William’s mother, the Queen. She is a witch who had transformed him into a fawn to keep him safe. There are all sorts of Freudian issues going on, and the Queen disapproves of William’s love for Margaret. She then abets the villain of the piece, The Rake, who in the best song on the record (villains always get the best songs) introduces himself by describing how he killed all his children. The Rake kidnaps Margaret, and the Queen helps him get her across the river. William goes in hot pursuit. The ending isn’t very clear, but it seems The Rake’s children come back to life to avenge their deaths (people don’t stay dead long in Colin Meloy songs) by singing “ooooh, the hazards of love” at him. William and Margaret drown together in the river but get married as they do so. There’s one wedding planner whose job I don’t envy.

Like most rock operas or concept albums, the narrative is a little dodgy, but musically it is incredible, and runs the gamut from gentle folk melodies to pounding heavy metal riffing. It takes a few listens to get into, but once it clicks, it’s hard to not want to listen to it again. And again. And again.

So in concert, they indeed played the entirety of the record—as one unbroken stream of music. Sure, some bandmembers had to vamp for a few extra bars in between some songs so others could change instruments (when the lights went out you could see the silhouettes of roadies running on and swapping guitars). The female singers who play the roles of Margaret and the Queen on the album (Becky Stark and Shara Worden, respectively, the latter of which has a very powerful Grace Slick voice) reprised their roles in concert. Worden in particular pulled out all the stops as Witchie-poo. The highlight had to be “The Rake’s Song” in which Meloy plays acoustic guitar, Nate Query plays bass, and everyone else pounds on drums. As I said, villains always get the best songs. (The Queen’s songs also get into deep Black Sabbath territory.)

The song list for the first half was:

The Hazards of Love
“The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)”
“A Bower Scene”
“Won’t Want for Love (Margaret In the Taiga)”
“The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)”
“The Queen’s Approach”
“Isn’t It a Lovely Night?”
“The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid”
“An Interlude”
“The Rake’s Song”
“The Abduction of Margaret”
“The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing”
“Annan Water”
“Margaret In Captivity”
“The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)”
“The Wanting Comes In Waves (Reprise)”
“The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)”
The second half of the show was another hour of other assorted tracks. My only disappointment was only one track from Picaresque (still my favorite album of theirs). But, who am I to complain? Meloy has been to a few Robyn Hitchcock concerts as he is getting that jokey stream-of-consciousness banter down pat. He treated the audience to a confession (“don’t tell anyone”) of “the worst song I ever wrote” describing the anatomy of “Dracula”s Daughter,” “A Cmaj7th to a G7, alternating back and forth in a swinging pattern—for the layman, all this is to say is that this is a douchy chord progression....As I put that on my notepad, my feather pen fell to the ground, with a splash of ink that spelled ‘Help.’” He then went on to talk about the ghosts that may have been in the room at the time...downright Hitchcockian. Still, Meloy is the kind of guy you actually would expect to use a feather pen; his lyric are rife with “thou”s and “shalt”s and the like, as well as vocabulary that sends even me running for the dictionary. (A “taiga” by the way, the setting for The Hazards of Love, is “a moist subarctic forest dominated by conifers [as spruce and fir] that begins where the tundra ends.”) That’s up there with “the curlews carve their arabesques” on The Crane Wife.

Other highlights included an extended “The Chimbley Sweep” in which various audience members were recruited to come on stage and strap on a guitar. The evening ended, as all Decemberists shows these days do, with “Sons and Daughters” and everyone in the audience chanting “Hear all the bombs fade away.”

The song list for the second half was:

“Oceanside” (5 Songs EP, 2001)
“Lesley Anne Levine” (Castaways and Cutouts, 2002)
“July, July!” (Castaways and Cutouts, 2002)
“Sleepless” (a truncated version of a track that appears on Dark Was the Night, a benefit album for Red Hot Organization, an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS)
“Summersong” (The Crane Wife, 2006)
“O Valencia” (The Crane Wife, 2006)
“The Chimbley Sweep” (Her Majesty, 2003)
“Crazy On You” (yes, the Heart song, sung by Margaret and the Queen from The Hazards of Love)
“Eli, The Barrow Boy” (Picaresque, 2005)
“Sons and Daughters” (The Crane Wife, 2006)

Anyway, it was a wonderful evening and if anyone ever gets the opportunity to see The Decemberists, I highly encourage it. Here is what the Boston Globe said of the show.

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