Photos / Review: The Decemberists @ Rams Head Live (2008.11.08)


Photo credit: Greg Szeto

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MP3: The Decemberists (Colin Meloy solo) – Night / Rake (Live)

Even the best of us falter.

While some, many in fact, shudder at the notion of enjoying the Decemberists, dismissing them as smarmy smarty-pants who try too hard to make delicately crafted musical arrangements or shallow apers of Neutral Milk Hotel, it is inescapable that they have provided me some of the most enjoyable and memorable live experiences in my not-too-short show-faring life.

I’ve seen them no less than 6 times, in some form or another, including once with the Baltimore Symphony (redefining the word transcendant in my inner dictionary and inspiring me to start writing about my experiences with music), once in a 2-day double-header and once with Colin Meloy going solo.

Each live show I saw was nothing short of beautiful, spectacular and hilarious; they managed to amplify the strongest charms of their music, delivering equal portions of careful almost-winkingly planned choreography and obscure lyrical wordplay, enrapturing and bard-like yarn-weaving, and genuine, good-humored spontaneity and joy of performance.  They consistently transported the audience into either epic tales of heroism and ne’er-do-well-erism, or deeply affecting emotions and moodscapes.

Unfortunately at Rams Head, I finally saw a performance that I can only characterize as mediocre.  The venue is infamously difficult to fill and energize, but the energy was boiling over in the crowd.  The easily past-capacity sell-out had people ravenously hanging over the edges of balconies and cramming the floor in front of the stage, anxiously awaiting Meloy and crew.

IMG_2793It seemed this energy was never really internalized and reciprocated by the band.  Where normally, the members would be bounding playfully around stage, like kids in a candy store, stood relatively static and stoic adults.

Previous shows have seen Meloy and co coaxing the audience into a stomp-along for 3-movement epic “The Island,” devouring each other with giant cardboard whales amidst the sea-swells of “Mariner’s Revenge Song” or playing their instruments upside-down in the audience.  This time, we got nothing more than a weakly-insistent singalong on “Sixteen Military Wives.”  While their stage presence definitely lacked, the more disappointing aspect was just how neutral and flat the music felt.

In past shows, the immersion was instantaneous from the first note.  The lush and layered arrangements became irresistible, magnetic vehicles dumping the audience up to their necks in passionate moodscapes of Meloy’s picaresque tall-tales.  This time, things felt much more rudimentary.  The sound less immediate and immersive, more about precision than passion.  The pained tragedy of “Lesley Anne Levine” was a pale shadow of its past self.  The end result was a really lackluster set that paled in comparison to previous outings.  The pained tragedy of “Lesley Anne Levine” was a pale, half-hearted shadow of its past self.

However, there were some undoubtedly beautiful moments to be had, two of the best in the encore.  The first song of the encore, the infinitely precious “Raincoat Song,” was performed as a duet between Meloy and Moen, accompanied with equal parts humor and preciousness, capped by plenty of witty banter.  Set closer “Sons and Daughters” is rapidly becoming a crowd pleaser with its rich, warm tones and soaring closing chorus.  “Shanty for the Arethusa” opened with a stirringly majestic, nautical volley that was rarely matched throughout the set.  “Record Year,” arguably the best track from the Decemberists’ latest collection of singles, showed a brief return to form of the deeply affecting moments that cut straight to your heart and account for a sizable portion of the Decemberists’ power.

Overall, it would seem the Decemberists may be treading water for the first time since I can’t remember when.  Meloy did reveal, however, that they had recently completed their latest album.  If new material from other outings is any indication, epics like “Night/Rake” should reinvigorate their performance and freshen up the set.  Something that may be sorely needed, if their tour stop here is any indication.


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5 Responses to “Photos / Review: The Decemberists @ Rams Head Live (2008.11.08)”

  1. Nolan says:

    I do believe we went to the same show at Merriweather.

    Also, damn well written.

  2. Heather says:

    I think we just got a bum show. People on other stops of this tour seem to really have had an opposite reaction.

  3. Megan says:

    I had never seen the Decembrists before this show, but I had fun! Maybe it wasn’t their best of shows, but it was still a great live performance…if that was a disappointing show to the real fans, I’d really like to see them again when they are at the top of their game.

  4. Paul says:

    I thought the show was awesome. I was also at the Merriweather show, but I think I actually may have preferred Ram’s Head. I really enjoyed the setlist, especially The Island, Leslie Ann Levine, and the Bachelor and the Bride. I went with 2 friends who also really enjoyed the show. I was really close up though, so that really impacts my thoughts. I noticed a lot of spots in the venue I would have absolutely dreaded being stuck in for the whole show.

  5. Jake says:

    I agree, the venue was a bit over packed, although Rams Head Live tends to be. I loved the performance though. I do understand that The Decemberists have done much better shows, such as with an orchestra during their tour for The Crane Wife, but all in all the songs sounded great and I was much happier once the nameless underage drinker in front of me had vomited onto the floor. He cleared out a nice opening in the crowed which allowed me to get a vastly perfect view of the whole stage.

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