By: Alex Wood
The Decemberists made a triumphant return to Chicago on Friday, their Chicago Theatre performance marking their first tour in four years.
Despite the prolonged hiatus, the band returned with a feverous energy in a set that flaunted their stylistically diverse discography.
Opening, appropriately, with “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” front man Colin Meloy stepped on stage alone, addressing the audience literally through the new track.
“We know, we know, we belong to ya/ We know you built your life around us/ And would we change, we had to change some,” he sang.
Band members slowly crept onto the dark, barren stage throughout the song, slowly adding their contributions. First simply background vocals, then bass and piano, then drums and guitar.
Before long, the band was in a heavy, dark, electric jam that undermined the acoustic, literary stereotype many have for the band.
The Decemberists aren’t the same band that produced their fan-favorite, older records, and there are no apologies necessary. The band has grown into something bigger, and inarguably better.
Though “Calvary Captain,” the second song from the band’s new album What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, followed, sounding like a streamlined version of the Decemberists’ sound, it was a brief stop in an ever-changing set.
“Down By The Water” and “Calamity Song” featured a stripped down folk sound, acoustic guitars and accordions in the forefront. “Calamity Song” began with Colin Meloy performing the melody as he wrote it, sang to persuade his young son to eat his food at the dinner table.
“Oh Hank, eat your oatmeal/ Oh Hank, eat you naanbread,” he sang with surprising sincerity before entering the track.
Meloy remained talkative throughout the show, addressing the audience regularly with a witty humor one would expect from the band. Before ‘Till The Water Is All Long Gone” he addressed the awkwardness of fans deciding whether to sit or stand, stating that “it looks like the sitters are winning.”
Sitting or not, the audience was extremely enthusiastic in the sold-out venue, with roaring applause following every song and regular standing ovations, a testament of the band’s long-standing relevance.
“Philomena” featured a catchy melody fleshed out with a huge sound from the backing band, the group’s two female background vocalists contributing significantly.
After a long run of songs from What A Terrible World, “The Crane Wife 3” was received with huge applause, the audience singing nearly as loudly as the band’s amplification.
“The Island” followed with force, the song stretching into progressive-rock territory with its heavy, electric riff and synthesizer and piano backing. The sound was massive yet clean, leaning heavily on Jenny Conlee’s phenomenal keyboard playing, constantly switching between organs, pianos and synthesizers to alter the song’s changing textures and moods.
The song displays the band’s strength in changing, marking the point where they began reaching for more ambitious compositions, a move that only strengthened their live performances.
Each of the song’s three sections built energetically forward, reaching a metal-like intensity in “The Landlord’s Daughter” with heavy organ and distorted guitars.
The third section, “You’ll Not Feel The Drowning,” found the band switching instruments, the keyboardist on accordion, the bassist on keyboards, the drummer on bass and the guitarist on a steel string, each working to create a spacious but massive folk ending to the ambitious, twelve-minute jam.
“The Wanting Comes In Waves” aimed to match the song’s intensity later in the set, with noisy guitars and a progressive piano line giving way to a hard-rocking guitar riff.
When the Decemberists want to sound huge, they certainly can.
“The Rake” kept the set dark and intense, Meloy stepping to the front of the stage to direct intricate clapping from the audience, each section of the theater clapping different speeds of the high-tempo song.
“Sixteen Military Wives” featured a jazzy introduction, the song building to its sing-along chorus, Meloy playing into the song’s political views, yelling, “Screw Rahm Emanuel, look at me!”
“A Beginning Song” followed with a big finale, bookending the set with the first and last songs of the new album.
Meloy returned to stage backed only by drums and a single background vocalist to perform a delicate version of “12-17-12,” a song he described as being “about bringing your loved ones close.”
The band finished the encore boldly with a phenomenal performance of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” the epic sea shanty from Picaresque. An intensely theatrical musical performance was met by overtly theatrical visuals, the band acting out the lyrics of sailors being eaten by a whale.
The perfect close to a fantastic set, the song reinforced the notion that the Decemberists were never simply a literary, acoustic-folk band, always having bigger visions and ambitions for their compositions.
The Chicago Theatre show displayed the power and passion behind these compositions, and justified the audience’s blatant admiration of the group. Fifteen years since their formation, the Decemberists haven’t stopped giving their all, and show no signs of letting up now.
1. The Singer Addresses His Audience
2. Cavalry Captain
3. Down By The Water
4. Calamity Song
5. Till The Water’s All Long Gone
7. The Wrong Year
8. Make You Better
9. The Crane Wife 3
10. The Island
11. Los Angeles, I’m Yours
12. Carolina Low
13. The Wanting Comes In Waves / Repaid
14. The Rake’s Song
15. Sixteen Military Wives
16. A Beginning Song
18. The Mariner’s Revenge Song