|The Decemberists sound check at The Pageant / All photos by Katie Guymon|
Last Wednesday, I attended my first ever sound check. Yes, I, along with approximately fifteen others, had the privilege (courtesy of my favorite indie radio station, KDHX) to witness The Decemberists, along with Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins, gear up for that evening's show at The Pageant. Around 4 o'clock, we marched in a solemn huddle inside the nearly empty venue, quiet except for a muffled exchange between Colin Meloy and someone at the soundboard.
The next forty-five minutes was bewitching. The curtain of mystery had been pulled back, revealing the inner workings of a touring band, the behind-the-scenes tinkering necessary to pull off a magical performance. For (only a fleeting) moment, I worried that I was seeing too much. Would the turning volume knobs and lighting fixes and the working out of the kinks ruin the sanctity that is the live music experience for me?
Turns out, the answer was no. The sound check showed us watchers the band's playful side. Very much led by frontman, Meloy, the band shared laughs, dipped in and out of covers (when Meloy sang a few bars of Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness," I sort of melted into a puddle on the floor), and interacted with the audience in the form of up-close-and-personal witty banter.
Seeing the band in this light... Well, it definitely bridged this omnipresent gap that's previously kept me from fully connecting with the Portland five in the past. I've often found the high-concept, sometimes operatic, approach a little off-putting. But, the sound check moved me closer to the heart of the band. I was very much looking forward to the concert later that evening.
I think it's important to note that The King Is Dead has been in my car stereo non-stop since it came out last January. I've been enthralled with the ten-pack offering for literally months, and I was insanely excited to hear songs off this album live. So, when the night kicked off with three in a row - "Down by the Water, "Calamity Song," and "Rox in the Box" - right after the opener, I was sucked in by this chugging train, this boiling pot of layered guy-girl harmonies (Watkins taking the place of Gillian Welch from the new album), harmonica, and folky-rock guitar. These songs sound fantastic live, there is not doubt about that. They are high on my list of hits.
What I count as misses are, really, the exact same beefs I've had with The Decemberists since the band's debut. Granted, it's all a matter of personal taste. While I appreciate the literary edge of Meloy's lyrics, (I had to look of the definition of "panoply" after falling in love with "June Hymn" and for real, the use of the word "sinews" in "Red Right Ankle" still haunts me to this day), many songs are taken to such theatrical heights that they become displays of exhaustive melodrama. I know that fans were thrilled to get "The Mariner's Revenge Song" as the closer of the second encore, especially since it took on the form of a mini-play, complete with the audience listed in the cast of characters. (We had to SCREAM. REAL. LOUD.)
What I realized is this: it's just not my thang. No offense. It's just not.
But, there is still plenty about The Decemberists, be it the band's studio albums or live shows, that wallops me to the ground time and time again. I got to hear one of my top three songs, "Crane Wife 3," live last Wednesday. Its simplicity and brevity makes it, to me, powerful. It's a shot to my heart every time I hear the chorus: "And I will hang my head, hang my head, low..."And, hearing it live was a highlight of the night.
The aforementioned "June Hymn" marked the final song of the night, and despite the oft-times histronic tediousness of the band's show, this song was like a lullaby, a final goodnight to send out us into the rainy spring air. Gorgeous. In the end, The Decemberists do have the ability to punch me in the gut. You know, in that vehement way we all want music to abuse us...
From this band, I will take what I can get when I can get it.
Down by the Water
Rox in the Box
The Engine Driver
The Bagman's Gambit
Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
The Crane Wife 3
The Sporting Life
The Rake's Song
Don't Carry It All
16 Military Wives
This Is Why We Fight
The Chimbley Sweep
My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist
The Mariner's Revenge Song