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ISSUE 119 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 10/28/2005

Decemberists set sail at First Ave.: Portland rockers impress with theatrical performance

By April Wright
Staff Writer

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Portland-based band The Decemberists sailed into the Twin Cities for the second time this year last Friday, and when they told the audience to "Scream like you’re being eaten by a whale," we all did.

The show opened with the extremely tepid Cass McCombs, who sounded a bit like an immature Neil Young. Thankfully, his set was short and the Decemberists took the stage a full twenty minutes early.

They instantly blew away any traces of McCombs’ leftover sap with a vibrant rendition of "The Tain." The song, which is a reworking of an old Celtic poem, bore resemblence to some of Radiohead’s more raucous songs, and was played with the kind of feverish intensity that is sorely lacking in most of The Decemberists’ contemporaries.

The band played a total of two long hours, but their performance never felt stale. Lead singer Colin Meloy’s lyrics are an intelligent, modern answer to narrative poems of the past, but even so, the songs never feel cheesy, forced, or hard to connect with.

Meloy and his sharply-dressed cohorts ripped through poppy album favorites such as "Sixteen Military Wives" and "July, July!" with a kind of infectious, maniacal glee. Even through all the excitement of more sunny songs, melancholy numbers like "Eli The Barrow Boy," off this year’s Picaresque, were soulfully delivered.

As a band, the Decemberists have grown more and more skillful in delivery. Even since their previous visit to the Twin Cities last May, they have noticeably tightened up their musicianship. There was scarcely a note or entrance missed throughout the show.

Meloy’s voice has matured since the Decemberists’ earlier albums, Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty, growing from an earlier mule-like sound to something smoother and sexier. The crackles and strains of earlier shows, evident on songs like "Leslie Anne Levine," have cleared away. Violin and vocalist Petra Haden has grown more comfortable with her role in the band and has gotten over some of the stage fright and nervous note-drops that plagued her earlier performances.

In addition to being better musicians and having better lyrics than many of their contemporaries, the Decemberists finish ahead in another aspect: theatricality. On the way out, I heard one disgruntled "fan" remark, ‘That was too showy, too Target Center." Not true.

While other bands simply bob and sway, The Decemberists bring forth a full-on, audience- participation show. The band’s performance on Friday kept the crowd on a tight leash. Many at the show were dancing without ever taking their eyes off the stage or closing their mouths to keep in the drool. When Meloy lead the audience in a midset calistenics lesson, even the bitter misers in the bar above the main floor bent their knees, stretched their arms, and tickled the person next to them.

The Decemberists are perhaps most famous for the chanty "The Mariner’s Revenge Song," a definate crowd pleaser. During the song, when a pair of cardboard whale jaws lunged toward the crowd, everyone in the house was supposed to scream.

And we did.

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