The Decemberists at the Boulder Theater, 2/9/11
Editor's note: Two of our writers were at the Decemberists show last night in Boulder, and so today we present you with two different accounts of the show from two different perspectives. Two for the price of, uh, none, as it were -- well, unless you count the cost your Internet connection.
With Mountain Man
02.09.11 | The Boulder Theater
Like the Pogues, Portland-based superstars the Decemberists bring a good helping of traditional music (in America, we call it "folk") to the louder and more explosive world of rock and roll. But even in his most unruly phases -- singing "This was my happy ever after/So, motherfucker, kiss the ground" -- the wildly talented and dangerously drunk Shane McGowan always had one foot firmly in the Joycean lineage of epiphanic, original wordsmithing.
Colin Meloy? Not so much.
Meloy -- who looks not unlike a nerdy wrestler -- was, more than anything else, ostentatious on the big Boulder Theater stage last night. Lyrics such as "These cliffs of Dover/So high you can't see over" were sung with a preened, cringe-worthy faux-English tilt.
And when the frontman of an internationally famous band with a just-released chart-topping, major-label album (The King Is Dead) that the majority of his adoring audience knows all the words to greets them by announcing, "We have a new album out called The King Is Dead," ostentatious is about the only appropriate adjective. Picture Mick Jagger telling an audience, "We are the Rolling Stones."
Not that the Decemberists, who've been around for over a decade now, are poor songwriters or put on a below-average show. "Calamity," an end-of-the-world narrative reminiscent of R.E.M. for several reasons, and "Down by the Water" highlighted their Boulder set by juxtaposing the expectantly energetic with the playfully and poetically dire. And the group's capable musicianship -- notably, the gorgeous organ and pedal steel of Jenny Conlee and Chris Funk, respectively -- added the confident chops necessary for a successful marriage of folk and rock.
But something -- who knows, maybe the intoxicating mountain air Meloy mentioned -- made the Decemberists seem trite. It could've been the hit-or-miss lyrics presented as scripture, or the obvious R.E.M. thievery, or the band's long-winded pre-recorded introduction by the mayor of Portland, but I'm fairly certain it was the Decemberists' incredible opening act, the Vermont trio Mountain Man.
Humbly emerging to find their places in front of three microphones amid the Decemberists' substantial setup, Mountain Man's all-female lineup (Alex Sauser-Monning, 24; Amelia Randall Meath, 22; and Molly Erin Sarle, 21) quickly hushed and captivated the sold-out Boulder Theater crowd. And not because Meath talked fondly of her two summers at a hostel in Boulder as a teenager and the group's pre-show meal at Lucille's.
"Eclipse my hips/I'm all yours tonight," the trio deftly harmonized during "Dog Song," drawing brief snickers from some of the preteen Decemberists fans pressed against the stage. "Hurry up, baby/Or get out of my sight."
The three members of Mountain Man, who have only been singing together for about two years, have created something inherently fun and intriguingly sexy, but the perfect timing and endlessly rehearsed harmonies displayed last night also bring a touch of the sacred to the band's shows. Not surprisingly, the young Decemberists faithful quickly became fans.
Meath, who told me after the show that her new haircut is an effort "to bring Tank Girl back," held the silently amazed audience in near rapture with a solo take on the Tom Waits classic "Green Grass." At that moment it was obvious that most of the capacity crowd forgot which act was the headliner.
-- Adam Perry
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I don't fancy nerdy wrestlers Random Detail: Most songs on Mountain Man's Made the Harbor are a cappella -- some feature an acoustic guitar -- but a wide-body Gretsch electric was passed between Sauser-Monning and Sarle at the Boulder Theater. By The Way: The Decemberists have a new album out called The King Is Dead.
Click through to read Laura Shunk's take of the show
With Mountain Man
02.09.11 | The Boulder Theater
On one of the colder nights of winter, the Boulder Theater was packed to its breaking point. A young crowd donning a lot of flannel had come for a winter warmer of indie rock and were collectively barely unable to stave off the anticipation of seeing the first of the two shows the Decemberists are playing in Colorado.
But first, Mountain Man, a trio of women who met in Bennington, Vermont, took the stage to play a little charming, classic folk: simple melodies tinged with bluegrass and overlaid with harmonic vocals. For the most part, the tunes were uplifting and cheery, something you'd want to listen to as you made breakfast in the morning.
That worked well on stage, too, and the women had no problem engaging the audience and keeping its attention, emanating confidence as they meandered through a couple of songs. And they did what an opener should do, imparting a happy, mellow vibe and getting the crowd thoroughly excited for what was to come.
"This song is for the twelve-year-old boys in the front row," one of them joked by way of goodbye, and their voices floated over the notes of one last melody, after which they left to loud applause. By the time the lights went down for the Decemberists to take the stage, people were practically standing on top of each other and buzzing with anticipation.
And then a voice boomed over the loudspeakers. "I'm Sam Adams, the mayor of Portland," it said, before imploring us all to introduce ourselves to each other. The voice had the balcony blow raspberries at the floor below, then asked us to close our eyes, imagine we were on a Northwest beach -- perhaps in a parka and drinking a strong cup of coffee -- and visualize a band of travelers coming toward us. That band: The Decemberists.
The crowd lost it at that point, shrieking as the group took the stage in front of a forested backdrop. Like good Pacific Northwesterners, the Decemberists were clad mostly in flannel. One member rocked a furry Soviet hat.
"Good evening," said Colin Meloy, the singer-songwriter who fronts the group. "You're awfully close. Hopefully I'll get used to it. Thanks for coming. We're gonna play some songs now." And over the titters in the audience, the band launched into one of its earliest numbers, "Apology Song," about a stolen bicycle.
The band formed in 2000 in Portland and, until its last album, The King Is Dead, rooted itself in Brit-indie folk with some identifiably West Coast flourishes. Meloy's grandiloquent story lines and tongue-in-cheek lyrics are as interesting as the instrumental harmonies, which run from simple and pleasant to a clashing cacophony, sometimes in the same song. While the group's most recent release is still firmly within the folk and rock genres, it also comes back to America. You can hear alt-country. You can also hear influence from bands like R.E.M. (and Peter Buck, who actually contributed to the album).
After "Apology Song," the bandmembers launched into that new material, breaking out "Down by the Water," which could have come straight from the early 1990s. They then moved into the country-heavy "Calamity Song," which Meloy introduced by saying, "This is a song about the end of the world."
Meloy isn't ostentatiously theatrical, nor is the rest of the band. Rather, his stage presence is personable, as if he's a friend playing on a couch in the living room, pausing occasionally to carry on the conversation, which he guides toward jokes and engaging everyone. He responds to crowd commentary with ease, responding good-naturedly and confidently, drawing the crowd in and encouraging interaction. Like when one fan yelled, "Colin, you're awesome!" He smiled and replied, "Thank you. And speaking of awesome, this is Sara Watkins. She's touring with us. The sixth Decemberist."
Watkins, who comes from folk-bluegrass outfit Nickel Creek, added vocal harmonies and fiddle backup. She also rocked the main vocals for "Won't Want for Love," a foot-stomping track from The Hazards of Love album that bled seamlessly into "The Island," complete with a roadie-assisted guitar change for Meloy mid-song. That gave way, after a little more banter, into a crowd (and personal) favorite from an early release, the imaginative, jaded "Los Angeles, I'm Yours."
"Oh, Boulder," Meloy smiled when that song came to a close. He held up a handwritten sign on a piece of cardboard that said "Please play 'Row Jimmy,'" referring to the Grateful Dead cover on the B-side of the seven-inch of a King track, "January Hymn." The band joked around about it on stage for a while, then said, "We're not gonna play that," and launched, tauntingly, into "January Hymn" instead, one of the lilting songs from the new album that most recalls their previous work, save for the overlaid organ chords that lend an Americana influence.
The finale was approaching, and it came with "Sixteen Military Wives," a bouncing, poppy track from Picaresque. The crowd knew every word, and it stomped and sang along. And true to form, Meloy engaged, leading everyone through the lah-di-dahs mid-song and then saying, "Okay, now just me. Don't sing. Don't sing!" The crowd roared and cheered -- and continued to sing.
"We're gonna play one more for you," he said over the roar of the audience. And the band played a passionate rendition of the affirmative, anthemic "This Is Why We Fight." And then Meloy flicked his pick to the crowd, exiting to an outpouring of screams and whistles that just intensified until they came back, quickly, for the encore.
"We're probably going to mess this up, but we're gonna try it anyway," Meloy joked. And then the band gave the crowd what it had asked for, the cover of "Row Jimmy," a '70s-'80s blues riff that got everyone dancing again.
"Be careful what you ask for," Meloy said when it finished. And then he set the crowd up for the storybook tale of "The Mariner's Revenge Song," asking them to scream like they were being eaten by a whale when given the signal. And then, like characters in a strange puppet show, each bandmember played a part in acting out the strange lyrics.
The crowd swayed in unison, sang along and performed its role admirably. And at the close, Meloy flicked his pick into the crowd again, exited with the band...and returned. Again. At which point the crowd freaked, and several fans yelled, "Thank you!"
Under stage lights like a sunrise, the band closed with "June Hymn," the reflective summer track from King. And then Meloy high-fived several members from the crowd, bestowed one with another pick and left with his band, this time for good.
And most of the crowd hung around for a few lingering seconds, basking in the reminder that the best way to experience this band really is live.
-- Laura Shunk
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: I've followed this band since my freshman year of college, when all I could really get my hands on were EPs. By the Way: The set list names "A Cautionary Song" as the first song in the first encore. In reality, the band played "Row Jimmy." Random Detail: Those picks he gave away? Yellow.
Click through for full setlist
SET LIST Apology Song Down by the Water Calamity Song Rise to Me We Both Go Down Together Bagman's Gambit Won't Want for Love The Island Los Angeles, I'm Yours January Hymn Rox in the Box Sixteen Military Wives This Is Why We Fight
FIRST ENCORE A Cautionary Song The Mariner's Revenge Song
SECOND ENCORE June Hymn
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.