Last night, there were any number of various activities in which I could have partaken. I could have been watching Kris Allen win American Idol (my verdict: not a huge surprise, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer dude. Bonus: now, Adam doesn’t have to record that heinous “Bounderies” song). I also could have been seeing the amazing Tornado Rider at the Red Devil Lounge (I’ve been wanting to see this band for some time now – their lead singer, Rushad Eggleston, is a madman with a cello strapped across his chest). But, in the final hours of the afternoon, my roommate got a call offering her two free tickets to the sold-out Decemberists show at the Fox in Oakland, and she asked if I’d like to go. And in the words of the ever-wise Winston Zeddemore, “Ray, when someone offers you free Decemberists tickets, you say YES!” So off to the Fox we went.
An hour and some well-orchestrated BART-wrangling later, we arrived at the theater minutes before the Decemberists began their set. And, dude. They have gotten better. Maybe it’s the theater – I felt the same way about seeing Franz Ferdinand there last month – I had enjoyed The Decemberists well enough when I saw them at the Warfield in support of The Crane Wife, but last night’s performance was in a whole other league.
Though really, is no mystery as to why this show was so much better – it’s the new material. The band performed their new album, “The Hazards of Love,” in its entirety, featuring several new musicians, most notibly Becky Stark and the awesome Shara Worden, both on vocals. I haven’t yet heard the record (I know!), but just from seeing it live, it’s clearly their best, most exciting material to date. What’s more, it’s exciting to see someone doing something that is so close, in many ways, to The Exited Door… scripted vocals, sung by several vocalists, one each representing light (Stark) and Dark (Worden)… the drama and theatrical bent of the whole thing, as well as the audience’s enthusiastic response, had me really inspired.
So, yeah. The new material is really, really great. Super dramatic, mostly through-composed, with recurring themes and some seriously butt-rocking passages. When, in the second set, the band returned to play through tunes from their back catalog, the contrast couldn’t have been clearer. Those songs are great, and the band’s roots in folk and Americana will always be a grounding presence, but clearly, Colin Meloy has his eyes set on something much larger, both thematically and sonically, and if last night’s first set was any indication, he is achieving it.
Occasionally the music didn’t quite rock as hard as it wanted to… there would be a guitar riff or figure, or a drum fill that just wouldn’t hit quite as hard as the music suggested that it should. If I had to point to the culprit, I’d say that in terms of their equipment, attitude, and execution, they’ve yet to make the shift from prog-folk to prog-rock. This isn’t really a complaint, per se – they sound great, and occupy a unique stylistic zone, which is cool. And it would actually be a bummer if they came out there with, like, Muse‘s gear (I mean, I can’t imagine Meloy rocking a Manson Guitar, you know?) But all the same, a few of the darker, rocking sections could have rocked me a bit harder.
And while we’re talking about rock – let me say a few words about Shara Worden. Well, maybe just one word – Rad. Shara is the band’s new secret weapon, an unhinged, devilish performer, slinking around the stage in a micro-mini and bare feet, limbs akimbo, wailing into the mic like some serpentine chanteuse of the river styx. Awesome. I immediately recognized her as the lead singer of the band that had been touring in support of The Decemberists last time around (a little googling reminded me that their name was My Brightest Diamond), and I remembered loving her then, too. Honestly, at that show, her music, Buckley-tinged freak-out rock with wild, wailing vocals, did more for me than The Decemberist’s set. It’s a really good sign that Meloy, realizing what a killer she was, wrote her into the band’s next album.
The show ended on a low-key, humorous note, with an encore in which Meloy (who has never reminded me more of a reedy-voiced Garrison Keillor) leading members of the band through an in-audience reenactment of the Donner Party Tragedy. It was really funny, down-to-earth, and a great contrast to the intense dramatic highs reached in their first set.
I don’t know where the group’s evolution will end them up – who could? Their next album could very well be an acoustic reinterpretation of, like, Canturbury Tales. What I do know is that they appear to be continually improving themselves, fearlessly embracing their own musical evolution, and as a result, their next show will almost certainly be even better than last night’s. I’ll sure be there.