Published Mar 31, 2015From the second he strolled onstage holding a wine glass and acoustic guitar, the Decemberists' frontman Colin Meloy cleverly and self-awarely pandered to what fans at Massey Hall wanted.
Deflating the elephant in the room with set opener "The Singer Addresses His Audience" (which also serves as the first track on the band's latest LP What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World), Meloy started to deliver the song's "We know you want to hear our old material, but we made a new record that we like and we're going to have to play some of the new songs" message solo, but the rest of the band sauntered into the spotlight and joined in by the song's end.
Backed by a gorgeously illuminated patchwork quilt backdrop, the seven-piece live lineup then launched into a jubilant rendition of Picaresque cut "The Infanta," followed by The King is Dead's "Rox in the Box," and then what Meloy described as "an old Canadian folk song" — which was actually an improvised anecdote about beaver pelt tradesmen and their sweethearts, interspersed with snippets of Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams." It was merely the first of many instances in which the band's affable, offbeat collective personality extended beyond the songs and made onlookers laugh.
And although the Pacific Northwest band's affinity for quirk often veered dangerously close to fodder for a Portlandia sketch, moments of musical prowess and emotional sincerity reined it in from ever reaching full-blown caricature. Castaways & Cutouts' "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect" provided the night's first moment of said tenderness, but it was The Crane Wife trilogy that followed that stands firm as the show's highlight. Delivering the three-part orchestral folk-pop masterpiece in its entirety, the group's almost 15-minute long rendition of "The Crane Wife" brought the audience to their feet for a standing ovation early in the evening.
As foreshadowed by the set opener, the string of back catalogue classics was interrupted with a run of new songs like "Make You Better" and "The Wrong Year," and while the live performances injected some much-needed energy into the tepidly received album versions, the audience's response was not nearly as enthusiastic.
Hazards of Love blues-rock opera ballad "Won't Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga)," however, was met with rousing approval, primarily for the spectacular showing from "honorary Decemberist" (and frequent Neko Case collaborator) Kelly Hogan, who was present on stage all night but really stole the show as the song's title character. "The Rake's Song" from the same record came next — you know, that song about murdering all the babies — and served up suitably demonic red lighting, a five-person percussion unit and an orchestra of Meloy-conducted audience clapping. He took on the conductor role again for some thunderous "la-dee-das" during "16 Military Wives," as well.
Closing the set with the tongue-in-cheek choice of "A Beginning Song," the band did return for an encore of "12/17/12" — and after a young girl in the crowd delivered a bouquet of flowers to the band, Meloy burst into an impromptu take on the Smiths' "The Boy With a Thorn in His Side," as keys and accordion contributor Jenny Conlee scattered the flowers about the stage. The grand finale, though, came in the form of the epic sea shanty "The Mariner's Revenge Song."
Perhaps the only band that could end a set with its members being eaten by a giant whale (as the audience provides a soundtrack of horrifying screams) and still be taken seriously, the Decemberists managed to weather a lacklustre response to their latest record and still deliver an endearing and engaging evening of live music.