Wednesday, November 8th, 2006

O Valencia!

How different my life might have been if I was 10 years younger and able to capitalize on geek chic as opposed to the… whatever the opposite of geek chic that I grew up with. Consider Portland’s Decemberists, who if they had come along at any other point in history besides the early aughts would be getting swirlies in the boys room rather than packing venues like the Kool Haus, as they did on Monday night. Riding the success of their latest (and for my money, greatest) album The Crane Wife, Colin Meloy and his vagabond players drew a devoted crowd of castaways and cutouts to a venue that I affectionately refer to as “the god-awful concrete box by the waterfront. No, not The Docks, the other one”.

Support on this leg of the tour was Alasdair Roberts, a Scottish folkie who performed a compact set of Scottish folk. Now while I appreciate that a Decemberists audience would likely be far more receptive to someone performing traditional Celtic ballads than, say, a Celtic Frost audience, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they WANT to hear traditional Celtic ballads. Roberts’ set was received politely, though not especially enthusiastically, and he wisely decamped after half an hour. Perhaps in a different, more intimate setting he’d have come across better but if there’s one thing the Kool Haus is not, it’s intimate.

The Decemberists, however, know how to work a room. Any room. This was my third time seeing them, and each time was at a considerably larger venue than the last, moving from the cozy Horseshoe in March 2004 to the mid-sized Lee’s Palace a couple months later (which I didn’t attend) to the 1000-capacity Phoenix last May and now the cavernous Kool Haus, twice the size of the Phoenix. And though each time I can’t imagine they’d be able to draw that many more fans – this is a band whose wikipedia entry links to “idiosyncratic” (okay, not really), each time I’ve been proven wrong. Not only are they able to fill each room with more adoring throngs, but they’re able to raise their energy and level of performance to prove that they were indeed meant for the stage, no matter how big it is.

The touring band again featured a new face with Lisa Molinaro of TalkDemonic, taking the violinist position most recently vacated by Petra Haden, who had also been handling the backing vocals originally belonging to former drummer Rachel Blumberg. And while Molinaro was up to the task on fiddle as well as handling Laura Veirs’ duet duties with Meloy on “Yankee Bayonet”, it was surprisingly drummer John Moen who covered the bulk of the harmonies and excellently so.

But as excellent and essential as the supporting cast are, the star of The Decemberists is unquestionably Colin Meloy and everyone knows it. Probably the unlikeliest-looking guy to make the girls in the front row scream, Meloy was in top form both as performer and as puppet-master. Whether inciting impromptu audience dance contests, leading singalongs or splitting the crowd in half and getting each side to jeer at the other during “1816 Military Wives” in some sort of metaphor for the political state of America, everyone was just another player in Meloy’s little comedies. Meloy also got into the act, falling flat on his face after wrapping himself up in mic cable and attempting a little crowd surfing though that ended up being little more than dipping his toe in the water and running back onshore.

Musically, they leaned heavily on The Crane Wife including both epics but also delved into their back catalog enough to satisfy the long-time fans (though I’d have killed to hear any of the REM covers that Northamption, MA got. It’s hard to appreciate the breadth of the band’s musical ability until you actually see them play – they had a small orchestra’s worth of instruments along with them, though I was particularly impressed with Chris Funk’s awesome space-age hurdy gurdy, or at least that’s what I think it is. What is that, carbon fibre? And unbelievably, the sound at the Kool Haus was not only acceptable, it was actually terrific – loud and clear and not nearly the acoustic nightmare that it usually is. Veteran Toronto concertgoers will know of what I speak, and believe me when I say it sounded great. This is generally held to be one of the signs of the apocalypse, but if that’s the case then it’s good to go out on a high note, with a great show, and we all go down together.

As the Decemberists carry on with their North American tour, they leave a trail of press clippings and interviews in their wake. Among them – Junkmedia talking to Chris Funk, The Flint Journal with John Moen, and Exclaim!, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Sun-Times and The Los Angeles Times with Colin Meloy.

And do check out the Filter tour blog, which features dispatches from a different blogger in each city on the tour (I covered Toronto) as well as interview tidbits with Jenny Conlee sprinkled throughout.

Photos: The Decemberists, Alasdair Roberts @ The Kool Haus – November 6, 2006
Stream: The Decemberists Crane Wife jukebox
MP3: The Decemberists – “The Engine Driver”
MP3: The Decemberists – “The Soldiering Life”
MP3: Alasdair Roberts – “Drinking Milk Again”
MySpace: The Decemberists

Paste discusses the stories behind Ys with Joanna Newsom while The Village Voice offers up a somewhat more elliptical feature on the artist. The Chicago Tribune also has an interview. The new album is out Tuesday.

Being There hunted down Joe Pernice at home in Toronto to chat about Live A Little and his current endeavours, both musical and non. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review also has an interview.

You must check out the latest from Blogotheque’s Concert A Emptor video series – Joel Gibb leads The Hidden Cameras and scores of Parisians in song, pied piper-style, along the banks of Canal St Martin in Paris. Fantastique.

np – Jens Lekman / Oh You’re So Silent Jens

By : Frank Yang at 8:29 am
Category: Uncategorized
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  1. Thierry says:

    Wait, are there two new military wives of which I was not aware? ;)

    Typo aside, your review is spot-on – shockingly great sound (I could pick up every instrument, and the mix was as clear as a dvd!), great musicianship, brilliant songs, Sixth Man Award to John Moen, etc.

    As for Alasdair Roberts, I thought he was actually pretty good at what he did (Bert Jansch- and Davy Graham-influenced British folk – he’s definitely listened to a few Pentangle and Incredible String Band records), but his set would have worked much better at the Tranzac than the Kool Haus.

  2. AJ says:

    Where you guys standing up front, because I was in the rear and the mix was brutal. Meloy’s vocals were so dominant I had a hard time hearing much else. I also had a hard time buying into Meloy’s antics, I found he catered to the younger audience (all ages show)and didn’t let the great songs be the primary focus. I get you have to bring the energy up at larger venues, but are dance-offs the answer? No.

  3. Frank says:

    yeah, we were up front-ish, maybe 8 rows back, but in past experience even being that close could sound awful at the Kool Haus. Once you get further back into the corners, it’s bass trap city.

    As for the antics – I was going to comment on that but got tired of writing. It’s SOP (standard operating procedure) at Decemberists shows so I was used to them, but it is worth wondering if there’s a critical point at which the contrived-ness of it all will become a serious detriment? If so, I’d agree they’re getting there and a show at say, Massey Hall, would stand real risk of becoming as much musical theatre as concert.

  4. Matthew says:

    You wouldn’t have been surprised about Moen if you’d seen him play with the Jicks as many times as I did — that guy is a real gem, and it was a major coup for Meloy to secure his services full time.

    Of course, Malkmus went and one-upped him by getting Janet Weiss as his new drummer.

  5. Frank says:

    could you imagine Janet Weiss drumming for The Decemberists? That’d be awesome.

  6. Carly says:

    That was my first Kool Haus show. I had heard all of the terrible sound stories, so I had no idea what everyone had been on about because I thought the sound was great. The vocals WERE dominant, but I much prefer that to a lot of shows I’ve seen where you can barely hear them and have to pretty much imagine them.

  7. Thierry says:

    Honestly, the antics didn’t bother me much (and anyone who knows me knows that I’ve got little patience for gimmicky shows), mainly because it was only during two songs, and even then only seemed somewhat out of place during one (the three dance circles thing). And with music as theatrical as this, you should almost consider yourself lucky that Colin doesn’t make the entire audience act out his lyrics for two hours!

  8. Frank says:

    "consider yourself lucky that Colin doesn’t make the entire audience act out his lyrics for two hours!"

    Yeah, he did that last time…

  9. mike says:

    I believe you when you say the show was great for all the reasons you specified, but it was an entirely different show towards the back where I watched the show from. I didn’t feel the band projected enough to make the audience at the back feel like part of the show. Just my opinion.

  10. arnie says:

    i really find the joanna, already gathering "best album EVER" praise from critics is really just a self indulgent overbloated album that squanders Van Dkye Park’s talents. It’s a shame people mistake this type of endeavor as "revoultionary" when really it’s rather indebted to the past, but for those that haven’t heard much from before 1997, this WOULD sound incredible

  11. DA says:

    Was a great show. The sound was perfect in the front (and yes, it’s far from always being the case) and the band were so on. As for the venue – well, all you guys that were stuck at the back – you have my sympathy. At least the security seemed okay.

  12. jay clicky clicky says:

    Every time I see you pictures it makes me wonder why I even bother… My Decemberists pics look like someone poured beer on them.

  13. Eugene says:

    Here’s a link to download the recent Wash D.C. NPR broadcast

  14. nina beezy says:

    Hahaha, I was just cruising myspace and I saw this: Chilis is having a contest for a remake of the Baby Back Ribs theme song… this should be interesting.

    Ps-the winner gets a meeting with a record label. Sweet.

  15. thomaus says:

    I assume you’ve seen all of The National videos at… The Hidden Cameras canal-side show was indeed fantastique. Thanks for the link.

  16. annie says:

    decemberists do REM!