Last night The Decemberists played a $40 show at the Strathmore out in suburban Maryland. I have a friend who really wanted to see them, so I tagged along. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise — their show two years ago actually kind of put me off of their music for a while, and as a result I skipped them last year when they did two nights at the 9:30 Club — but I’m glad I let myself be talked into it, even considering the rather surprising price tag.
These guys are consummate entertainers, and they were pretty hilarious throughout the show. The Strathmore is a very grandiose theater-style seated venue, and I was wondering how the band would react to it. Aside from several jokes about the audience being calmly seated during the entire set, they took it all in stride and, if anything, were even weirder and wackier than usual, cracking jokes left and right, doing their whole audience participation thing (standard stuff that hasn’t changed since I saw them two years ago), bumbling around the stage, etc. Two years ago I didn’t buy their schtick for whatever reason, but this time they had me sold, and the crowd was completely enthralled. They just seemed very unforced, and it showed in their music as well.
They focused mostly on last year’s The Crane Wife, but having already toured extensively in support of it, they had a noticeable comfort level with the material and stretched out a bit, adding in small guitar riffs and mini-solos here and there to pretty great effect. Their setlist was also interesting, curiously enough opening with the low-key “Oceanside” from the Five Songs EP, and then including a couple songs from each of their older albums. The band’s epic side was in full effect last night: they played almost all of their “big” songs, including “The Island,” “The Crane Wife,” the “California One” medley, and the inevitable, crowd-pleasing “Mariner’s Revenge Song.” Really, all that was missing was “The Tain” and they would have played every one of their grand-scale epics in one show. Nice.
My complaint is kind of funny coming from someone who curates a prog review site: I thought the keys were way too low. The fat chords in “The Island” didn’t shine through enough, and in several other songs some of the subtle flourishes were lost as well. On the upside, Chris Funk broke out a hurdy-gurdy for all of twenty seconds in “Eli the Barrow Boy,” which was awesome.
Two years ago I came away from a Decemberists show not really wanting to listen to their music again for quite some time. This time around, I had the opposite reaction — I went home and listened to a couple songs from Her Majesty the Decemberists, which is probably my favorite of their works (might just be the primacy effect though, they are all pretty damn good). Kudos to those guys for playing in what must have been a pretty unfamiliar venue type for them, and pulling it off better than I would ever have expected.