By all rights, The Decemberists should not be able to get away with either their high drama or their goofy stage antics without coming across as forced, precious, pretentious and shticky. I have no idea how they do it, but frontman Colin Meloy and company put on an exhaustively spellbinding evening that, even though you know it isn’t, feels as if it’s happening for the first time.
Their performance at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Friday night was delivered in two acts. The first was a complete and uninterrupted run-through of the newest album The Hazards of Love>The Hazards of Love. Hazards is a concept album; a Gothic fairy tale with shape-shifting forest creatures, jealousy, murder and love gone awry. As much as they’re a band, The Decemberists are storytellers, and although it was easy to miss the intricacies of the narrative, like an opera in another language, the story’s emotional weight was never lost.
In addition to the two characters vocalized by Meloy, Hazards incorporates two female characters; the delicate mortal Margaret, sung with angelic sweetness by Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond), and the vengeful forest queen played with vixen-like swagger by Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond).
There were no set pieces and no real costuming other than Stark’s white gown and Worden’s sultry black attire. The real theatrics came from the incredibly expressive vocal performances, and of course the music itself, which expertly built the tension throughout to a rousing crescendo of a climax.
Satisfying as this part of the show was, it was very much a performance. No real interaction with the audience or presence of the band’s character came through. However, following a brief intermission, The Decemberists returned to the stage to deliver another set of selections from their back catalog.
“I feel like we’ve created a steamy, sweaty kind of intimacy,” explained Meloy, who proved himself not just a performer, but a hell of a showman. Whereas the first set was all about the drama, this second set made room between the baroque chamber-pop and Victorian murder ballads to make corny jokes and have a bit of fun. During one extended number, Meloy leapt from the stage, climbing over and through the audience. A 12-year-old girl who’d been excitedly snapping pictures all night excitedly exclaimed, “I touched his shoe! I touched his shoe!”
Other shenanigans included playing his acoustic guitar with his teeth, which Meloy claimed never to have tried before, and a good several minutes in which the players switched up and played each other’s instruments quite poorly, prompting the quip: “You’re probably thinking to yourself right now, ‘How much did I pay for that ticket?’”
Of course a good bit of this had probably been repeated by the band nightly. A couple instances, such as the confessional recital of “Dracula’s Daughter,” Meloy’s proclaimed “worst song I ever wrote,” were undoubtedly pre-planned. The moments were pulled off with such charisma and charm that it really didn’t matter. You just wanted to go along with the goofy fun. Following the second “act” came a brief encore set during which Stark and Worden again took center stage for a dead-on rendition of Heart’s “Crazy on You”.
Few musicians can call their performances “An evening with…” anymore, but with the headliners owning the stage for nearly two-and-a-half hours and performing more than two albums worth of material, last night more than qualifies for that title.