Live Review |

The Decemberists
@The Quiet Storm
Pittsburgh, PA
May 15, 2003

Here I dreamt about the Decemberists. "Here" was some nameless night a number of weeks ago. The dream took place in a nondescript banquet hall. We—me and people that I knew in that dream world but don’t know in this one—were served dinner as one of those perplexingly bland party bands that play beach towns covered top 40 hits from behind a thin crimson sheet. (Shame was no doubt reason for the veil.) After dinner and esoteric conversation I can no longer recall, the Decemberists appeared. Their faces were all powder white, eyes ringed in soft gray, save one of the band members, a girl, who had tears painted on her rouged cheeks. They were dressed in what I would call antique carnival costumes and adorned with fantastical hats, canes, and scarves. Their instruments were exaggerated (a grossly oversized acoustic guitar I remember clearly, played by a guitarist with "Gumby" arms) and downright odd (some kind of percussion contraption made of two tall hinged wooden ladders that clacked! together); one member banged cymbals from high atop stilts. As they played their obtuse sounds (none of it really sounded like any of the Decemberists’ songs—the singer’s voice was a true representation, however), they rotated around the gathered crowd on a rickety stage outfitted with wagon wheels and maneuvered by solemn circus monkeys. It was a strange dream.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this, other than it does serve to somewhat illustrate the image conjured in my head of the Decemberists and their other-era story songs—stories of soldiers, legionnaires, brothel inhabitants, gin-smugglers and infants set against the antique romance of cobblestone streets, chimney smoke, European seaport towns, old time carnivals, lamp-lit barrooms.

Of course, in reality, the Decemberists are just a group of nice, regular dressed people who play rather normal instruments (Colin Meloy, voice/acoustic guitar; Jenny Conlee, accordion; Rachel Blumberg, drums/voice; Chris Funk, pedal steel; Jesse Emerson, stand-up bass). There were no circus monkeys present at their recent show in Pittsburgh, which took place in a very spacious coffee shop called the Quiet Storm. The Decemberists, having recently signed to the Kill Rock Stars label (their first album, the Hush Records released Castaways and Cutouts, has just been reissued by KRS and the forthcoming Her Majesty, The Decemberists is set for a September arrival), are making their first cross-country tour with label mate Jeff Hanson. Hanson, who played solo, was an OK enough opener, but his high as a kite voice—which bordered on sounding like a teen girl’s—and undistinguishable songs never grabbed hold of the room.

On the other hand, Colin Meloy, the Decemberists’ singer and tale-teller, has a warm nasally voice that commanded attention from the fist uttered word. The band started out with "California One," which segued seamlessly into the Castaways closer "Youth and Beauty Brigade." They then jumped to the top of the record’s order with "Leslie Anne Levine" and "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect." On many of their songs, but especially "A Cautionary Tale," they proved that the accordion could offer strange and spooky, wondrous and lovely, elements to the rock world. (Might the damage done to the accordion’s rep by "Weird Al" Yankovic and Polka stiffs be surmountable?) At one point, Meloy told the crowd that a lightning bolt struck the club they played in Chicago a few days prior, short-circuiting their keyboard equipment, so they “went to the trusty original.” I say thank you Mr. Lightning Bolt, because I think we all liked the accordion just fine.

In addition to most of the songs from Castaways, they offered a gem or two from their 5 Songs EP, including the wildly imaginative "My Mothers Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist," which Meloy prefaced with "this next one is autobiographical." Between their storybookfolk-pop tunes, the band sipped Iron City beer, which is a beloved Pittsburgh local. The band, however, wasn’t too smitten. "Does this always come in plastic bottles?" asked Meloy. "Why do you drink this?" he half-jokingly added, as other band players sported Bitter Beer Faces. Despite the beverage selection (and the four or five occasions when fleets of police cars screamed by, red and blue lights flashing and sirens blaring through the large—and numerous— coffee shop windows), the band seemed to really enjoy themselves, smiling often and head-bobbing along to the jaunty folk of songs like "The Legionnaire’s Lament."

The Decemberists bid us adieu with a promising new number called "I Was Meant For the Stage," a bit of bright lights balladering billowing with literary wit and sincere emotion. And as the crowd heartily clapped, appearing to be thoroughly charmed and impressed, I thought to myself...wait, hold on: What the hell, I’m dreaming about rock bands now? The Decemberists are really great, but it’s still a little creepy. I may need a life.