All photos and review by Chris Sikich.
On Saturday the Keswick Theatre was the setting for an impassioned mix of the macabre, the prurient and the fantastic from Colin Meloy, the frontman of one of the best bands of the aughts, The Decemberists. For both the show’s length and breadth you could not ask for much more as Meloy took the audience on a journey from the Portland, Ore., band’s first EP, 2001’s 5 Songs, through to 2011’s The King Is Dead, and even threw in four brand-new songs for good measure.
Meloy began the night with one of the new cuts, which he called “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” brandishing his well-earned confidence in his own talents. After earning some laughs for his wit in the self-reflexive work, he segued into one of The Decemberists’ staples — “July, July!” — a song that got the crowd to sing along in earnest. Tonal shifts are one of Meloy’s specialties, whether of the new/old variety or disturbing/romantic variety. Ending “Calamity Song” by relaying how it once had a connection to getting his son, Hank, to eat his oatmeal and then rolling into one of Meloy’s greatest songwriting achievements, “Oceanside,” about lusting after a woman at sea, further exemplifies the contrasts evident in his work.
Meloy kept the crowd highly engaged, getting sing-along moments to songs including “Red Right Ankle” and “The Crane Wife,” among others, as well as whistling help for the first set closer, “Bandit Queen.” These moments also suggested what was missing, namely the rest of The Decemberists. On “Ankle” Meloy even referenced a part bandmate Jenny Conlee-Drizos would have been playing. This does not show any flaws in the performance or the performer, though; they highlight that these works are pieces of a much greater whole that Meloy respects and cherishes. The newest works, which beyond their sometimes meta nature harbor the same verboseness (a particularly long line in “Honeydew” got Meloy a bit tongue-tied, leading him to say at the end that he had performed it better before) and desires (the youthful lust in “Philomena”) of The Decemberists’ greatest works will certainly have many more nuances with the rest of the band (as suggested in his interview with The Key earlier in the week, these songs are intended for the whole band). Unlike his early solo-show career back in 2005 and 2006, when he also played pre-Decemberists songs from an earlier incarnation known as Tarkio, Meloy is front and center solo as a part of a larger whole.
But with his solo shows comes a bit of creative maneuvering with what bands he might cover. In previous years, he interpreted the eclectic trio of Morrissey, Shirley Collins and Sam Cooke. This time around, he chose The Kinks and what he called the “chordiness” of Ray Davies, though he claimed Clannad and Nico were in the running as well. And rather than come out every night to play the same Kinks song, he chose one he’d never performed before a crowd, “Do You Remember Walter?”
There was something for every fan of Meloy and The Decemberists, from the phenomenal pairing of Picaresque’s “The Engine Driver” and “On the Bus Mall” to the always awe-inspiring closing of all three parts of “The Crane Wife.” And even if he did disappoint one die-hard listener who called out for an extreme rarity, “Perfect Crime No. 1,” a song played only a few times, he gave back so much musical enjoyment with his six and 12-string guitar mastery and inimitable vocal style that everyone should be sated enough before The Decemberists hit the studio and road again.
New Song (“The Singer Addresses His Audience”)
Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
Red Right Ankle
New Song (“Honeydew”)
New Song (“Philomena”)
Bachelor and the Bride
The Engine Driver
On the Bus Mall
Do You Remember Walter?
New Song (played with harmonica)
Down by the Water
The Crane Wife 1 & 2
The Crane Wife 3