The title of the latest Decemberists album was inspired by one of American history's darkest tragedies, but the indie-folk heroes kept things light as ever at Northrop Auditorium Tuesday night.
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the Portland quintet's seventh album, takes its name from album cut "12/7/12." Frontman Colin Meloy wrote it about the contrast between his happy personal life and the country's sadness over the Sandy Hook shooting. That song, along with most of the new record's 14 cuts, was not aired live by the band in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,700.
In fact, just five of the night's 16 cuts came from Beautiful World, a somewhat disappointing figure when you consider that the second stop on the band's North American tour in support of the LP was the first chance to hear the new material live for most of the audience.
The band's first 10 minutes on stage actually suggested the crowd was in for a Beautiful World-heavy setlist, as the record's first two tracks, "The Singer Addresses His Audience" and "Cavalry Captain," kicked off the show in front of a beautiful backdrop inspired by the album artwork. Most of the remaining hour and 50 minutes, however, found the group relying on their back catalog, so it's a good thing that Meloy has a songbook deep and brilliant enough to warrant such a move.
Decemberists classics like The King Is Dead's "Down by the Water," Picaresque's "On the Bus Mall," and Her Majesty, The Decemberists' "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" followed, providing a proper career revue that touched on every Decemberists full-length except for their 2002 debut.
"The Island," the sweeping three-part epic from 2006's The Crane Wife, was the highlight of the main set, its 12 and a half minutes finding the band at its most aggressive (the "Come and See" movement) and its most tender ("You'll Not Feel the Drowning"). This is where singer Meloy, guitarist Chris Funk, bassist Nate Query, multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee, and drummer John Moen gelled the most exquisitely, proving why they have just as much business writing a prog-rock opus as they do a jangly pop tune.
Speaking of prog-rock opuses, the band's 2009 concept album The Hazards of Love had its own miniature section of the setlist later on, as "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)" and "The Rake's Song" were played back-to-back.
Unfortunately, all of these tunes left little room in the 18-song setlist for standout Beautiful World tracks like the poignant "12/7/12" and "A Beginning Song," a Decemberists fist-pumper if there ever was one. True to the album's meta opener, though, Meloy did address his audience a number of times, often to hilarious effect.
The bearded 40-year-old appealed to the crowd's Minnesotan sensibilities several times, recalling the time he took a picture of Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson from the wall of the dearly departed 400 Bar (the site of the Decemberists' first Twin Cities gig) and mentioning how much he enjoyed his dinner at the Bachelor Farmer in downtown Minneapolis Monday night. However, he did incite a round of friendly boos for suggesting that Minnesotans would rather eat at Applebee's.
Meloy also gave fans an insight into his songwriting process, unveiling an early version of The King Is Dead's "Calamity Song," which originated as a plea to get his toddler to eat what was on his plate. "Oh Hank, eat your oatmeal/ Oh Hank, eat your naan bread," he sang, before morphing the tune into the refrain of the finished product.
"June Hymn" showed off the band's penchant for twangy harmonies in the encore, while finale "The Mariner's Revenge Song" proved a whale of a tune -- almost literally. At the direction of Funk, the packed room collectively screamed at the top of its lungs in an attempt to simulate the sound of someone getting eaten by a whale. Then a giant whale was brought onstage to "kill" each band member one by one, leaving them lying on the floor with their instruments.
See, I told you the Decemberists kept it light.
Critic's Bias: I've liked the Decemberists ever since I picked up The Crane Wife soon after its release, but as a short-sighted college student both a) skipped their set at Lollapalooza 2009, where they played The Hazards of Love in full and b) missed out on tickets to their State Theatre show supporting The King Is Dead in 2011. I didn't become a huge fan until the intervening years between that album and What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, so this was my first time seeing the band.
The Crowd: Confused on whether to stand or sit at times during the first half of the set, but on its feet from "Won't Want for Love" on. Meloy usually encouraged such behavior.
The Singer Addresses His Audience
Down by the Water
On the Bus Mall
The Wrong Year
Make You Better
Los Angeles, I'm Yours
A Bower Scene
Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
The Rake's Song
16 Military Wives
The Mariner's Revenge Song
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