Over The Weekend: The Decemberists at the House of Blues

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The Decemberists, Other Lives
House of Blues
April 29, 2011

Better than: sitting in your bedroom, reading Melville, and wondering what it might be like to love someone as much as you love the sea.

Friday night's "sold out" show at the House of Blues didn't really seem sold out.

By the time the night's opening act, Oklahoma's Other Lives, took the stage, only a smattering of people, about four to six deep, gathered closely at the front of the room as the rest of the night's attendees made their way into the venue at a relaxed clip.

Even more surprising: There were far fewer beards in attendance than one would have expected.

By the time the Decemberists took the stage, though, the crowd has swelled to capacity -- and was in high spirits, too, in the moments before the headliners took the stage. All around, couples and groups of friends chatted up the songs they hoped would be played. With a large back-catalog of works, and a new record to promote, it seemed it would be impossible for the band to hit upon everyone's wish list of hits.

And yet, once it came time for the show to start, the lights dimmed and an unfamiliar voice come on the overhead speakers. He introduced itself as the mayor of Portland, Oregon, Sam Adams. Acting as a disembodied emcee of sorts, he cajoled the crowd into making introductions with strangers to their right and left, followed by further displays of parlor game silliness before finally introducing the band. By the time Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy and his band took the stage, they did so with much approval and not a little hootin' and hollerin'.

They genuinely seemed happy to be there, and immediately threw themselves headlong into "The Tain." After that song's lengthy meanderings, Meloy disclaimed their prog-rock status, dubbing themselves a folk band. This announcement was met with considerable amusement; the audience seemed to hang affectionately on the frontman's every turn of phrase.

Still, the band seemed to struggle -- or at least chafe a bit -- for the first third of the set. Meloy especially seemed to push and pull at the songs as if trying to squeeze into last year's Christmas sweater. But, with each song, the camaraderie thickened between performer and observer, and the tensions quickly gave way to playful banter and various forms of nerdy band/fan flirtation.

Bass player Nate Query and keyboardist Jenny Conlee were particularly adroit at finding and keeping the groove. Conlee seemed to approach every song with a festive familiarity and excitement. Even apparent stumbles and missteps quickly became stepping stones to increased crowd happiness.

Through it all, the Decemberists played to their fans, touching upon many highlights from their storied albums. There was much giggling, and more than a few unashamed, rhythmically-challenged hand clappers, swaying and cheering as The Decemberists performed their sing-along set followed by two brief encores.

Earlier in the night, opening act Other Lives set the tone for the evening capably. No one member played any fewer than three different instruments during the band's 30-minute set. Their set started with a minimum of bravado, with the band clearly hoping that their music would speak for itself. Their sound can, at the very least, be described as cinematic, connecting the dots between spaghetti westerns and indie folk. Coupled with the band's mannerisms, it made for an engrossing listen. Their ambitious array of instruments and percussion were used in the full, with several of the members switching instruments up to three or more times a song. Very percussive. Some nice harmonies.

It may have only been the brief amount of time they were allotted that prevented them from becoming an interesting, albeit somewhat forgettable, footnote to a Decemberists show.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
Colin Meloy is a devout Morrissey and Smiths enthusiast, which automatically awards him an extra gold star in my playbook.

By The Way: One of the perks to the evening's performance was Sara Watkins, who joins The Decemberists on this tour as a backing vocalist and violinist.

Random Note: The presence of a bathroom attendant in the men's room severely curtailed general hygiene as many of the gents made haste to the exit without washing up. I shook few hands this night.

The Tain
Down By the Water
Calamity Song
Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)
The Rake's Song
Won't Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
The Crane Wife 3
On the Bus Mall
Raincoat Song
June Hymn
Don't Carry It All
16 Military Wives
This Is Why We Fight
January Hymn
The Mariner's Revenge Song
Encore 2
Dear Avery

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