Is he drunk? What’s he going to do next? This is all I could think about during the beginning of The Decemberists’ Saturday night performance at the Riviera Theatre. Lead singer Colin Meloy appeared to be in a good place. Instead of opting for short and succinct Jeff Tweedy–esque audience banter, he would go into stream-of-consciousness rants before realizing that the people had come for the music. Meloy’s affability made the show immensely entertaining, and at times nothing short of completely hilarious.
As amusing as Meloy was, audience participation defined the evening. At one point during the song “16 Military Wives,” the band stopped playing. Meloy took the next several minutes trying to split the audience in two. As the chorus continually repeated “la de da,” each side sang along loudly, staring across the divide and shaking their fists in anger. Meloy used the audience to build a crescendo before returning to the song and ending it in style.
Much of the concert consisted of songs from the band’s most recent effort, The Crane Wife. Songs like “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” and “The Crane Wife 1, 2, and 3” highlighted the show. The band also played the 12-minute number “The Island, Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel the Drowning,” as well as the beautiful “O Valencia!” The sound collage of the band’s instrumentation perfectly translated to the stage. While the lyrics may be rather melancholy, the performance could only be described as joyous.
“Sons & Daughters,” a new song, closed the first set. Before the last song, Meloy told the audience to get involved, and everyone responded, repeating the final lines of the song, “Here all the bombs fade away.” As the sound grew, the band played on. The crazed lead singer sang with us as everyone became connected to the concert. It marked a final exclamation on a very celebratory evening.
The most bizarre event during a night marked by originality occurred close to the end of the concert. Three members of the band left the stage for one song only to appear in the front section of the audience. Meloy explained that they would now reenact the final battle in The Lord of the Rings. One would be the orcs, one the elves, and one the huge birds. The crowd made room for them as the rest of the band played.
During the encore, the audience pleaded with Meloy to play “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” While this was not precisely like requesting “Freebird,” the band appeared tired of playing such a concert staple. The anger present in much of the audience was rather troublesome. Meloy polled the audience to see what they wanted. He told everyone that the band had another song they wished to play. Only three members were on stage: Meloy, accordionist Jenny Conlee, and bassist Nate Query. As the song began, we realized what was occurring—The Decemberists were playing “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” after all. The crowd had resigned themselves to the idea of not hearing the song, and when it began, the electricity in the building reached an astounding level.
My friend Rob put the evening in perfect perspective. He told me, “I have been to many concerts of bands that I like more than The Decemberists, but this was by far the most entertaining show I have ever been to.” Rob was right. The Decemberists gave the audience everything they craved: great music, humor, and a personal connection with the musicians. There existed no true separation between the band and the crowd below. Perhaps the new frontier of music journalism exists in the participatory realm: journalists getting involved in music and employing a necessary self-effacing tone in their writing. It would be easy to take the audience participation embraced by Meloy to the next obvious step in the vein of the participatory sports journalism of the past. Instead of wearing a Detroit Lions uniform in an attempt to be a professional athlete, the new music journalists will hit the road with guitars and harmonicas. From Paper Lion to Flat Decemberist, somewhere George Plimpton is smiling.