Review and photos – The Decemberists at the Vogue Theatre, July 22 2009
– review by Alex Hudson/photos by JaNicka Grayston
There are few ideas more outdated than the rock opera, but The Decemberists have never been ones to shy away from the absurd. So when the Portland folk rockers announced that they would be playing their latest album, the narrative epic The Hazards of Love, in its complete form during this year’s summer tour, it would have been fair to assume that they would be at their most campy and theatrical.
During this Wednesday’s performance at the Vogue Theatre, however, the group was surprisingly self-serious, running through the album with little pomp or vaudeville drama. Clad in dapper black suits, the Decemberists kept mostly to the shadows; even the usually talkative Colin Meloy downplayed the grandeur, singing most of his parts while half-obscured in darkness.
Rather than seeming dull, the Decemberists’ reserve was clearly intended to place the full attention on the guest singers. Becky Stark, best known as the voice of L.A. folk-pop band Lavender Diamond, wore a coral dress and an ethereal white shawl; with her hippy-dippy hand waving and strangely blank-eyed smile, she resembled an oddball flower child, perfectly suited to the role of the defenseless heroine Margaret. Surrounded by the withdrawn Decemberists, she was the star of the show.
That is, until Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) took the microphone. Despite her diminutive figure, the singer belted out a stunning version of the arena-sized rocker “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid”, prowling around the stage lunching in time to the song’s thundering beat. With a bejeweled black evening gown and an austere black bob, she was downright terrifying. It could have been an accidental wave of the hand, but I’m pretty sure she threw up the devil horns at one point during one particularly soaring high note.
The songs themselves were nearly identical to the album versions, right down to the hollering that punctuates the end of “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Down)”. In fact, some parts were exactly identical to the studio cuts – the children’s choir on “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)” was a prerecorded backing track, as was the banjo interlude “The Queen’s Approach”. Still, the album-length performance was an impressive undertaking and, thanks in large part to Stark and Worden, was as emotionally gripping as it was polished.
After a 20-minute interlude, the Decemberists returned to the stage to play a second set, this time drawing on back-catalogue favourites and the occasional cover. Unlike his placid performance during the first set, Meloy began bantering with the audience before the first song even began, joking “it smells like my college dorm” before launching into “Oceanside” from the EP 5 Songs. The group went on to draw from each of its first four-lengths, including a spur-of-the-moment take on “July, July” to fulfill a fan request.
The band also played two new songs, both of which were countrified acoustic numbers featuring guitarist Chris Funk on mandolin. But it was the 2006 single “O Valencia!” that was the highlight, its tragic Romeo and Juliet-style romance buoyed by a stomping beat and joyous melody. The set closed with Worden and Stark trading off vocal leads on a raucous version of Heart’s “Crazy on You,” during which audience members pawed at Colin Meloy’s legs as he performed the guitar leads.
Wrapping up the show with an encore of “Shankill Butchers” and the audience-singalong “Sons & Daughters”, the Decemberists finished in rousing, crowd-pleasing form, an atmosphere similar to the group’s previous tours. Still, as good it as it was, it was hard to forget that for much of the show, the two guest singers were more memorable than the band itself.