Thursday, June 4, my friend Steve and I went to see the Decemberists in concert at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. We drove there in the leading edge of a band of thunderstorms that made the drive, uh, interesting (thank you Steve) and which had Steve’s wife Mandy a bit concerned. While we saw a few fender-benders along the way – which created a couple traffic jams – we got there and back safely.
We had planned to see the band last year, but that show was cancelled. Steve had seen them before but this was my first exposure to them live. It was a good show. I think I can sum up my reaction in something I said to Steve between songs; “This show is reminding me of everything I like about hearing live music and everything I hate about hearing live music.”
The last concert I saw was something like 12 or 13 years ago. I saw REM at Iowa State University, I think touring behind the “Monster” album if I’m remembering right. It was a good show, but my real memory is that I got back at 3 am to find a phone message waiting for me from a friend who also shared my adviser at Iowa (this friend was also named Steve, coincidentally). Steve told me to call him back “as soon as I got in” – but given that it was 3 am and that he had two kids I waited until morning. That was when I first learned that my adviser was going to have a sex-change operation. The events of that day rather overshadowed the evening before.
In any case, I just hadn’t had occasion to see a live concert since then. I’m now 45 and I have to say that was on my mind. While I am unapologetic about liking what I like, I also don’t want to be that pathetic old guy trying to fit in with the kids. Upon arriving though, I found that the crowd varied in age as much as the crowd I had been in at my only Rolling Stones concert. Most of the audience were college-aged, which I expected, but there were also parents with kids and there were people – without kids – as old or older than me. Sitting right in front of us were three kids who were barely out of high school if they were out at all. This really surprised me – the younger people I mean. I know what I appreciate about the Decemberists’ music and it includes things live subtlties in the lyrics and references to the past and to everything from Celtic mythology to Shakespeare. I was left wondering if they were hearing those same things or if something else brought them to this band.
The opening band was Blind Pilot. Steve and I were both unfamiliar with them. I liked their music well enough, but I’d need to listen to it a bit more to determine if I’m really a fan. I might go looking the next time I’m buying music. Still, they performed well and were engaging on-stage.
The Decemberists’ show was divided into two halves.
First they performed their latest album “The Hazards of Love” straight through. For those readers who haven’t heard it, this album is a sort of “rock opera” (that is recorded – and was played live – without any breaks between songs). It draws heavily on themes from British folk tales and songs (I’m reminded most strongly of Tam Lin). They performed well – with one really stand-out element I’ll get to in a moment – but this part of the show suffered from the problem the album does. I’d give the music here a solid B+, but the whole thing does – as Steve was pointing out after the show – suffer from being a bit of an intellectual exercise. You are never quite swept away by it. I think the problem is that they are trying to be true to traditions of folk music, indie rock, and the rock opera a la Pete Townshend or Jimmy Page. The result doesn’t quite jell, but I think Steve was right when he said of this “Ambition can be a good thing.”
The stand-out element from this album and from the performance of it at the show is Shara Worden from My Beautiful Diamond (a band about which I know nothing). She sings the part of a sort of fairie queen and brings to it a vocal power immediately reminiscent of Ann Wilson from Heart. Onpstage she was dynamic and her solo was the high point of the first half show as it is also the high point of the album. I also have to say I was surprised at how small she is. Sort of like Pat Benatar she packs a lot of vocal power into a very small frame.
After a short intermission the band returned to play a selection of favorites from thier various albums beginning with “Leslie Ann Levine” from “Castaways and Cutouts” – which always struck me as a great opening song. In many ways this was the better half of the show because the band was able to do what they do best. I thoroughly enjoyed these songs. During an extended instrumental bit during “The Chimbley Sweep” from “Her Majesty the Decemberists,” Colin Meloy and Chris Funk began an amusing guitar duel which culminated with each of them reaching into the audience and brining a kid on stage who took over the instrument. I’m still not sure how staged this was, because at least one of the kids was suspiciously good. Still, it was fun. Again, Shara Worden stole the show, though. At the end of the set, but before the obligatory encore, the band slipped into Heart’s “Crazy on You” and Worden came back on stage along with the woman who sings the female lead in Hazards (Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond – another band I am completely unfamiliar with). They split the verses of the song between them. The band’s instrumental performance of the song was worthy of the original and Worden’s vocals were fantastic. Stark did well, better than I would have assumed, but Worden just brought the house down. The encore brought things down a bit (where else was there to go?) and ended with “Sons and Daughters” from “The Crane Wife”, which always struck me as an excellent closing song. All in all it was a good set.
Some of the kids in the crowd were bubbling and calling this “the best show ever.” I can’t really agree – I’ve seen the Stones. Still, it was a good show and I’m really glad I went.
Now – I mentioned my quote earlier about this reminding me of what I love and hate about live music. Here is the hate part – members of the crowd. The woman behind me with the ululating shriek worthy of a mourning Bedouin woman. The guy who had to bellow “Sons and Daughters!” at every halt during the second half of the show. The two stumbling drunk girls who came in after the band began playing Hazards and sat down next to me – which prompted an extended exchange involving the ushers when the real ticket holders arrived. All the people who came in late rather than sit through what was a perfectly goos opening band. The replacing of bic lighter with cellphone lights. All this irritated me – but not enough to make it into an evening that I didn’t enjoy.
Other moments of note – my first McDonalds food in a couple of years (who knew they were a coffee bar?) – the girl in front of us and the two guys who weren’t getting anywhere with her – the most confusing parking deck I’ve ever been in – and the guy with the crappy Fiat who definitely wasn’t getting any from his girlfriend that night.
Let me just finish by saying thanks again to Steve. He is the person who turned me on to the Decemberists to begin with – and in the process got me really listening to music again after several years. He also did the driving. I think that had I done that the irritation factor would have overwhelmed my enjoyment of the evening. Thanks, dude. I’m going to miss you.