Monday, July 16, 2007

I'll take a 740 with a side order of Shanty: Thoughts on the Decemberists

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.


Flop said...

I had to punt a $35 ticket to this show tonight.

Thank you for the lemon juice in my paper cut.

crimenotes said...

It was a good show on a nice night. Not as good as the average Hold Steady show or Wilco a couple weeks back.

dmbmeg said...

Right Flop? I was giving him the middle finger as I read this.

Sally Tomato said...

I'm not a big consumer of music produced past 1955, yet I loves me the Decemberists. After reading about the audience makeup of a typical D concert, I realize I was, am and always will be a gigantic dork. Ah me.

Mr. Met said...

I was there last night, and I have to say that the Decemberists being a good live band is probably the most shocking development in my history of concert-going. But they surprised the hell out of me by putting on a really good, hugely entertaining show.

And Flop, we got $30 for your ticket. So you only lost $5, and should quit your whining.

CrimeNotes said...

tomato: Yes, but nice, cheerful, smiling, arty dorks, the kind that comb their hair, groom well and recycle. (A guy near me was reading James Baldwin between sets.) Not zitty, sloppy, shut-in dorks. As far as dorks, this is good company.

mr. met: I enjoyed it but not as enthusiastically as you. Pleasant, fun and cheerful, a very good show, but nothing more extreme than that.

blythe said...

ira glass look alikes! i am so in the wrong city. people here don't even know who ira glass is. i saw the decemberists last year, though, and i gotta say, not all that impressed with their live show, but i've been ruined by the likes of craig finn for life.

CrimeNotes said...

i've been ruined by the likes of craig finn for life.

Ditto. For about a year I only went to Hold Steady shows because everything else suffers in comparison.

Jaime said...

I was there, dancing up front with the high schoolers. But I'm the kind of girl who finds Colin Meloy's lyrics to be just the best thing ever. I understand what kind of dork this makes me. I also read a lot of AS Byatt, you know?

The first time I saw The Decemberists I was surprised by what a generous performer Meloy is. I expected something more aloof or introverted. (Like Ben Gibbard, who I'm still convinced is his evil twin. I don't know how those two played a show together without tearing a hole in the fabric of the universe.)

CrimeNotes said...

I've actually never read any A.S. Byatt. Maybe I should have mentioned her instead of Andrea Barrett.

I think Colin Meloy's writing is entertaining, and was it's been fun watching him mature into a confident performer. Truly, I enjoyed it, but my ideal live show is anarchy and not coordination.