Decemberists bring some blizzard relief to Riviera

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

Last Modified: Feb 5, 2011 11:42PM

Can there be a better-named band to follow the apocalyptic snowfall of the past week than the Decemberists?

Yet at the Riviera on Friday, the Portland, Ore., band did not offer songs about snowdrifts or freezing ice. In their new incarnation, they played songs that were sunny, short and would sound appropriate on a soundtrack to a breezy and light summer film. As a final rub, one song plucked from several years ago was titled “Los Angeles, I’m Yours.”

“Write a song about Chicago,” a girl yelled when they were finished.

They could. Nine years back, the Decemberists originated as a band with massive ambition and just as much earnestness to match their interest in contrasts. The pensive lyrics of singer Colin Meloy and their reliance on folk tales and autumnal themes gave the band a sense of purpose that felt much more articulate than most bands. That approach resulted in some of Friday’s finest moments, particularly “The Crane Wife,” a lovely three-movement chamber folk suite that broke open into pulsating, melodic rock.

On “The King is Dead” (Capitol), a new album, those impulses are trimmed to fit more self-conscious story pop. Not a surprise that the band can do both. New songs such as “Down by the Water” were linked less to Jethro Tull and King Crimson and were more in the league of jangle pop from the late 1980s highlighted by R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs. (R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck happens to play on the album, too.)

The five-member band was augmented by a sixth member, fiddler and harmony singer Sara Watkins, originally of Nickel Creek. She added to the coziness of the new songs, shading Meloy’s austere vocals with warmth, especially on “Rise To Me,” which had the back porch feel of The Band.

Meloy engaged Watkins just once directly; otherwise, he preferred to stand alone to serve as the casual host of his own songs. In-between chatter was aloof, kind of like Dean Martin without the whiskey tumbler. His casual demeanor is quite a step back from a time as recent as two years ago when the band presented a dark song cycle that featured special guest singers. On Friday, the only theatrical flourish was the sudden appearance of a chromatic harmonica, resting on its own table festooned with a brightly colored tablecloth.

But even at their simplest, the band can’t help but sound cleverly orchestrated. “The Infanta” was set to a driving rock beat with organist Jenny Conlee interchanging riffs with Watkins before the entire band stopped for bridge of combined a capella vocals.

Even the comedy had subtext. Not far into the “The Chimbley Sweep,” Meloy instructed the sold-out audience to separate into two groups and had them sing to the other. Then, one-by-one, each member of the band switched instruments. They plodded on clumsily for comic effect as drummer John Moen tried out various rock star poses as if the crowd were his bathroom mirror.

How to top that? Moen, guitarist Chris Funk and bassist Nate Query leisurely crowd-surfed as Meloy kept the beat on drums. Cabin fever never looked like that much fun.

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