Photo taken from MediaEater's photostream."When I first got here there were two dorky teenagers sitting in front of me talking about word origins and Shakespeare," a friend said when I met him to see the Decemberists play Summerstage.
"Dude, don't be a dick about those kids," I said. "If there's anything that typifies Decemberists fans, that's it."
"I'm not making fun of them," he said. "You would have liked them. You could have been friends with them. One of them is trying out for MacBeth."
And there's your Decemberists demographic. In front of us there were eight or nine kids who looked like the coolest people in their A.P. Lit class. They acted the way I do at a Hold Steady show, shouting out the lyrics and dancing surprisingly well; I'm sure they'll all end up at Brown and Middlebury and Swarthmore, where they'll have the times of their lives, and I spent at least half the show watching them and wishing I was 16. There was an Ira Glass look-alike, and to our front left was a Dutch-looking middle-aged couple (the dude had a long blond pony tail, at least) swaying on command.
The core Decemberists demographic had (or aspires to have) high verbal SATs, and during the show you find yourself having conversations about things like whether it's historically accurate for the band walk out to the Soviet anthem when the Decembrist revolt predated the Russian Revolution by almost a century.
It's a strange band and a stranger crowd. When I first saw them play Irving Plaza in May 2005, I thought they were clever and above-average but essentially a novelty act. Tonight they had a couple thousand crossword aficionados and their teenagers bouncing on fake turf at Summerstage. If nothing else, they're building a dedicated, endearing cult following among people who like songs about sick orphans and whales. Or, to twist a Floppian catch-phrase, they're a "Prairie Home Companion" for the New American Century.
Perhaps as a result, Colin Meloy has grown from a competent, likable performer to a confident, impressive one. He visibly enjoys himself, hopping around stage like a drunk librarian at the thesaurus convention. Meloy literally stage manages the crowd: telling everyone to sit down on the turf, telling everyone to scream at an assigned point, telling everyone to repeat words or to wiggle their fingers in the air like ticker-tape. The crowd, being full of obedient A.P. Lit students, is thrilled to follow along.
With books, bands and movies, sometimes it isn't whether the work connects with you personally but whether it succeeds according to the goals it set. I've got all four of the Decemberists' albums, plus The Tain, but I don't fundamentally love them. I'm a sucker for lyrics and story songs. This band, like The Mountain Goats and Sufjan Stevens, they don't really hit me in any kind of deep way, but these weird, neatly crafted little stories work well for what they are. The Decemberists are like clever conversation at a formal cocktail party, or an Andrea Barrett short story: all charming and erudite, very likable, probably won't throw a drink in your face.
Still. On the subway ride up I listened to The White Stripes and when I got home I listened to the Black Keys. When I see a band I want the guitars to make my ears bleed, and my voicebox to hurt, and I want to lose my balance and fall down at least three times, and then walk outside with sweaty hair sticking to my forehead: floor seats to The White Stripes at the Garden; head-butting strangers when The Hold Steady plays Warsaw.
The Decemberists play with different rules, and their dorky-chic fans devour every second. So there I am in Central Park, watching planes in the distance, sort of loving the city and its people, watching the coolest kids in A.P. Lit choreograph moves to "The Chimbley Sweep," pointing out the Ira Glass look-alike to my friend and thinking about how reassuring it is to have a quirky, stylized band like this and a quirky, embraceable crowd like that accessible when I want them.