What: The Decemberists With Wye Oak
Where: The Greek
If there's one god awful concert tradition that needs to die of a combination of ebola AND bird flu, it's the ridiculous ritual in which the band prematurely ends an excellent set, dishonestly says 'goodnight' and 'thank you' and walks off the stage. At which point the crowd dutifully shouts 'more' or claps or whatever is required to 'convince' the band that the encore they have already committed to performing is in fact something they have only agreed to do because of the overwhelming crowd demand. It happens so often it feels about as spontaneous as an Easter Sunday mass. All it needs is the Bishop of Rock dispensing wine to make it officially predictable .
I bring this up because The Decemberists' appearance at the Greek Theater (with openers Wye Oak) — featuring music from their latest, The King Is Dead and a smattering of older material — was excellent. Despite the fact that they still went ahead with the stupid encore ritual.
“Thank god somebody turned the house lights down. Rude, right? Get it? Because we're outside? Ahh, jokes. Nobody wants to hear my jokes.”
That was Jenn Wasner's late-set crowd banter, and despite the fact that it went over like a lead balloon, I laughed anyway. Also, I'd just watched Wye Oak rock the hell out of my ears. Their set was mostly material from their latest album, Civilian, with a smattering of songs from previous records. I hadn't given them much of a listen prior to seeing them live, but what was initially mild skepticism turned into John Birch Society level fervor by the end of their set. Yes, I mean that I am now a total reactionary wingnut, but for a band.
There are plenty of groups consisting of nothing more than a guitarist/singer and a drummer, and they're often excellent. Somehow, however, I continue to be shocked. What stands out about Wye Oak is how minimalist they don't sound. Dummer Andy Stack banging on his drum kit one-handed, Rick Allen-style while fondling a keyboard, Jenn Wasner's guitar effects and gorgeous voice…There's not a lot going on but it feels like an army of musicians.
Maybe it was frontloaded. The Greek Theater Hospitality Room (awesome, BTW), was piping an REM greatest hits album over the loudspeaker. That was probably due to REM's influence on the Decemberists' latest, but it was appropriate mood music for Wye Oak's droning, shoegazer sound, which is full of cascading minor chords straight out of 120 Minutes. And I mean the version hosted by Dave Kendall. Think My Bloody Valentine. Think Ride. Think The Spinanes or Dinosaur Jr. before they turned into a lame blues band.
I don't mean to suggest that Wye Oak are a boring '90s retread – they're aren't – but that they've managed to capture the sweet spot between reliving the past and drawing from it. If you haven't seen them before, rectify that mistake as soon as you can.
Decemberists review below.
The majority of Decemberists' songs have a kind of low temperature, slow-building, epic feel to them, and as a result every song when they play feels like the final song of their set. I spent the evening expecting to hear 'THANKYOUGOODNIGHT' after every track. Midway through the show they dropped an epic performance of “Crane Wife 1 and 2” that seemed to last half the show. Not a bad thing, though. In fact, every song felt like a cliffhanger drawn out for multiple seasons. Luckily for those of us in the audience, they didn't end things with a weird island cork or God-did-it plot resolution.
Their set began with a hilarious voice-over from Portland Mayor Sam Adams, who urged the crowd to greet one another like friends. He set the scene by describing the Pacific Northwest scenery in the backdrop of the Decemberists' stage set. It gelled well with the band's relaxed, slightly drunken (then totally drunken) rapport with the crowd. Think: A combination of Vaudeville and Open Mic and you've got more or less the right idea.
The show began stiffly, kind of, almost as if they were actually nervous about the performance and just wanted to get it over with. But, during the set, Colin Meloy kept sipping from a glass of wine behind him. While he never went out of tune nor flubbed his lyrics, it was obvious midway through the show that he was quite blatantly soaked from gills to socks. Much slurring of words happened, and he addressed the crowd as “People of Griffith Park,” giggling a bit every time he did it. By the time they reached the 'encore' the band came off like your cool uncle on Christmas eve.
Whether he was actually drunk or simply playing it up for laughs, it had the effect of making a show this late in their tour – and one under the shadow Jenny Conlee's recovery from breast cancer – feel spontaneous and light, as if they were just kind of screwing around. When they stopped about 1/3 of the way through to talk for a moment about Conlee's recovery (and urge the crowd to buy 'Team Jenny' buttons, the proceeds going to breast cancer charity), it was obvious they're still really worried. Yukking it up drunkenly took the edge off the show's underlying seriousness.
About halfway through, right around the time when he began to slur just a little bit, Colin announced his intention to play 'the worst song I ever wrote', which turned out to be 'Dracula's Daughter' (“you think you've got it bad, try having Dracula for a dad”) – If you've heard it before then you know that, yes, it's terrible, but it is hilarious and segued into 'Valencia' well enough that a throwaway song Meloy is completely embarrassed about ended up sounding poignant.
The King is Dead is kind of a weird record. I don't think it's The Decemberists' best work – the title shows Meloy's ongoing obsession with Morrissey – and the music sounds much like a cross between REM and Morrissey. Hell, “Down By The Water” sounds like “Hand In Glove” mixed with “Losing My Religion.” Not a bad thing as it turns out, because the Demberists are just as aware of this as you are, demonstrated as Colin worked the first verse of Morrissey's “Angel, Angel, Down We Go Together” into the refrain from “Down We Go Together.”
It was all in all an excellent show, even if it ended with the same predictable encore. But who knows. Maybe the Decemberists will read this review and grant me my fondest wish. Then, my tombstone could have the following inscription, preferably in giant letters visible from space:
Here lies Ross Lincoln, American Hero
He saved us from having to pretend to beg musical acts to play the encore we all knew was going to happen no matter what.
Great show, though. Good job guys.