I first saw a Decemberists’ show at SXSW in 2004. Actually, I only saw half the show. Having been granted possession of the almighty badge, I found myself sauntering into all the biggest, buzziest shows in Austin without a hitch. It wasn’t until the last night of the festival that I was made to wait outside of Buffalo Billiards for thirty minutes before being granted access to join a crowd that was already overwhelmingly held in a fervor by a band that I thought was best known for sounding like Neutral Milk Hotel and for having a frontman with a voice rather reedy and outfits rather tweedy.
The line outside of Los Angeles’s Wiltern Theater on October 21 was significantly longer than the queue I stood in several years ago, the audience even easier to please. Colin Meloy has built up a substantial amount of credit amongst his fiercely devoted fan base, and he can subsequently get away with engaging his audience in joining him for a vocal scales exercise, repeating “This-is-a-won-der-ful-show” a dozen or so times. This type of shit doesn’t usually fly in unenthused Southern California, but Meloy’s followers are indeed the castaways and cutouts that he has attempted to enlist from the very beginning. The Wiltern was the perfect storm of wispy boys and girls, ironic and/or self-loathing enough to save the biggest cheers for “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” a tune that isn’t exactly charitable to the hometown.
Guitarist/whatever’s-appropriatist Chris Funk and new touring member Lisa Molinaro appeared to be engaged in an unspoken competition to see how many instruments each could play over the course of a fifteen-song set, tying at eight apiece. The stage was adorned with standing bass and bouzouki, moog and mandolin. I suppose the Decemberists embrace of these musical tools both retro and really, really retro could be dismissed as a gimmick, but that would discount the natural, often seamless beauty of the dozens of individual performances by this live sextet over the course of ninety minutes. If, for example, Jenny Conlee’s cascading Hammond organ throttle at the gonzo peak of “The Island” (a song born for the stage) was just for show, then it’s a fateful coincidence that it also drove the music with more thrill than electric bass alone ever could. All parties involved could find much simpler, lazier ways to show how clever they are, so it’s a minor quibble at best to question motives.
Interestingly, it was in the early going that the band broke into its most poignant track, Picaresque‘s “The Engine Driver.” When Meloy sang that he is “a writer a fictions,” he reminded that each Decemberists shanty and lullaby is ultimately a tale a love, loss or isolation. I venture it’s safe to say that no one in the audience had felt the sting of a musket or despaired in the belly of a whale, but the experience of a Decemberists’ performance provided an effective, albeit more pleasurable, substitute.