Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Decemberists--Mandel Hall at University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

Living close to a university campus has many advantages, one of which is the occasional act subsidized by the school offering discounted tickets to students. Such was the case for the Decemberists on November 1 at the University of Chicago at Mandel Hall offering this “student” a ticket for $15. This was the third show of their “Bridesmaid Revisited” tour. Upon entering the theater, we were instructed to choose whether we wanted a seat or a bracelet to allow us into-but-not-back-from the 200 person standing room section at the front of the stage. It is a very small theater, and we chose seats seeing that the theater had a wraparound balcony. We went upstairs and secured the balcony box closest to the stage on the right side. Our view was close and birds-eye. “Well done!” my rabid best-seat-finder persona said. “Yes. Thank you very much,” replied my concert-viewing persona. They always travel together and make a smashingly good team.

The Decemberists are definitely a band with a front man: lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy. Meloy is excited and passionate. Yet, as they started up, I had the sneaking suspicion I had seen these stage mannerisms before. As he closed the first song it became clear that I had seen something very similar at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance at the end of Back to the Future. However, Meloy seems to embody one part Marty McFly, one part George McFly. He holds himself as most of us would, with a slight awkwardness, true enthusiasm, and a tendency to stagger around in an “intoxicated-by-the-music” fashion. He overplays it a bit, but it is real. Like Marty, it was as if Meloy was on the stage for the first time making a dream come true that he had been practicing since he was nine years old with a tennis racquet in the mirror. I would do the exact same thing. I suppose no one ever really knows how well we will be able to pull off the classic rock star repertoire of stage moves until we are there.

Notwithstanding the appealing on-stage antics, the crowd proved a problem all night. The folks in the 200-person standing area were slightly doing their part. The seats were divided into a left and a right section. The left section never stood throughout the concert. The right side did. This left for an odd, disjointed visual of lacking enthusiasm. When Meloy started chiding the left side, I thought they would give in. But they held strong despite repeated requests from the singer that they stand. Now I am all for sitting. But when the lead singer has specifically asked you to stand up three different times during the show, and it is obviously fucking with him, I think you are obligated to stand. The whole evening had the feel that perhaps I was surrounded by people who don’t often go to one of these here “rock and roll shows.” Meloy commented that the crowd was “very polite…unsettlingly polite.” While the crowd was mostly undergraduates, the University of Chicago attracts the type of intellectual students who appreciate Meloy’s interpretation of ancient ballads rather than his rock sensibility. The calculus-equation-to-bong-hit ratio in this crowd was easily 80-to-20. The crowd appreciated Meloy’s vocabulary, intellectual kinship, and alliteration when he said the band was there for our “entertainment and edification.”

Here, though, is an interesting point. Meloy desired in word and deed that the place be filled with a rollicking, rocking energy. He encouraged the crowd to “turn this theater into a roadhouse.” He then hilariously said, “So for our part, we will play one of our sad, mid-tempo love songs.” Here was the tension present all night: Meloy wanting to be a rock star equipped with “The Crane Wife 3.” Meloy seemed to take it in stride, though, often making fun of the material's morose subject matter: “That song was about child, male prostitution. This is a song about rural infanticide…infantastic!” “We’d like to play a song about killing people now.” And he didn’t take himself too seriously proven by the odd Pink Floyd lines dropped in a “space jam” during “Chimbly Sweep” which was framed as a conversation between Sarah Palin and John McCain. Meloy did succeed in getting the crowd “into it” when he made a Get Out the Vote PSA with an audience member’s camera during “16 Military Wives.” He went political and smart. Know your audience.

Most importantly, Meloy proved why they are on the stage. The quality of the music and songcraft is great. Meloy’s melodies are original and compelling. Another problem with the crowd, I suspect, is that the Decemberists tend to be one of those bands that “all kinda sounds the same” until you give it proper repeated consumption, and then the band's originality and depth open up. I imagine many there were new to the band altogether. Multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, played the notes exactly where they should be, not too many, not too few, mastering a subtle or overt sense of texture. I was surprised to find that a lot of the vocals I thought were keyboardist Jenny Conlee were actually drummer John Moen singing in a falsetto. They played three new singles which were all as good as past material: “Valerie Plame”, an upbeat, pop catchy highlight of the night; “Days of Elaine”, the only song of the night with Meloy on electric guitar; and “Record Year for Rainfall”, featuring always great banjo dissonance.

While the evening never descended into the Led Zepplin atmosphere the band was hunting for, those of us that know the Decemberists and enjoy their music had a nice evening. And to be honest, in going to see the Decemberists, an evening of nice music was all I was really looking for. I enjoyed my balcony seat. I stayed seated all night like the rest of the fuddy duddies on the left side. But I will tune in if Meloy ever gets a Les Paul and a three piece (well…four piece, cause he is still gonna need a lead guitarist) to see the face melting, acid-rock show he creates.

--Scott Rudolph

1 comment:

Alex said...

I disagree with the premise that the audience is obligated to stand. They don't have to stand. Especially if they are ordered to stand. That would make me want to keep sitting even if I would actually rather be standing. You play your gee-tar, I'll decide whether such playing motivates me to get out of my seat. Deal?

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