In the end, there was something for everyone on offer at the State Theater on Sunday evening. For fans of the Decemberists recent #1 record, The King Is Dead, Sunday night's sold-out show must have seemed like a dream performance, as the band played eight of the album's 10 tracks during their 90-minute set. And those fans who perhaps felt a bit cheated by the Portland quartet's decision to play the Hazards Of Love in its entirety during their last two local shows were certainly pleased with the amount of older songs the band dusted off throughout their generous 17-song performance. While those looking for any type of diversion from the relentless trappings of the Super Bowl were ultimately treated to a fun, focused performance by a band that seemingly couldn't have cared less about the big game.
After a humorous taped introduction by Portland's mayor Sam Adams, the Decemberists strolled on stage intent on easing into the night serenely, opening with the sprawling placidity of "California One/Youth And Beauty Brigade." While it was nice to hear the band start with such an old number, and it was certainly a sight to see frontman Colin Meloy play the guitar while lying flat on his back (working in a riff from the Replacements "Can't Hardly Wait" in the process), the song took a bit too long to hit its mark and ultimately got the show off to a labored, uneven start.
But the band immediately picked things up with a triumvirate of songs from their new record: the boisterous, R.E.M.-echoing "Down By The Water," "Calamity Song," which Meloy introduced by saying is "our version of what the world will be like when it ends," and a touching rendition of "Rise To Me," which Colin dedicated lovingly to his wife (the artist Carson Ellis, who does most of the Decemberists album art) who was in the audience. These songs not only made it clear how wonderful The King Is Dead truly is, but it provided a spark that the rest of the show built off of.
The band's sound is filled out on this tour by the talented Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek, whom Meloy introduced to us as "Garrison Keillor's right-hand woman, which makes her royalty around these parts." Watkins spent the night continuously switching instruments, as did most of the band, going from the violin to guitar and back again, but it was her rich backing vocals that really colored the songs most exquisitely, especially on "Won't Want For Love (Margaret In The Taiga)," where she took over Becky Stark's original lead vocals and truly made them her own.
As the last two local shows focused primarily on The Hazards Of Love, it was a bit frustrating not hearing some of the gorgeous songs from the Decemberists stellar back catalog during those performances. So it was a real treat on this night to hear stirring versions of "July, July," "The Crane Wife 3," which featured Meloy on bouzouki, and one of my favorites from the set, a gorgeous rendition of "Los Angeles, I'm Yours." During the band's last performance at the State in '09, Meloy debuted an as yet unreleased song during the encore, playing a lovely solo version of what would later become "January Hymn." The rest of the band joined him on the stunning version of that number played on this evening, and it truly resonated with an audience that is quite sick of the endless slog of winter.
Typically, Meloy is a bit of a card onstage, telling jokes and funny quips while the band is switching instruments behind him. But on this evening he was a bit more restrained, especially during the second half of the set, as he remained mostly quiet while letting his songs do the talking. This created a focused flow to the end of the performance, as rousing versions of "The Infanta," "16 Military Wives" and main set closer "This Is Why We Fight" rolled on without a hitch. But "Miliary Wives" is typically turned into an audience singalong, and Meloy seemed to be gauging the crowds participation level near the end of the song, but the Sunday evening crowd, who were seated and sedate for most of the performance, failed to take his bait so the band instead sang out the lively finish to the track themselves.
The band did manage to work in a couple Hazards songs into the first encore, a lovely version of "The Hazards Of Love 4 (The Drowned)," that was another highlight of the set, and a spirited rendition of "The Rake's Song," which found four of the band members beating out the relentless rhythm of the song on the drums as Meloy flailed away on guitar. And, after one last lengthy round of applause, the band treated us to a second encore, a plaintive version of "June Hymn" that closed out the night poignantly and perfectly. The Decemberists put on an impassioned, enjoyable performance that certainly justified everyone's decision to skip the Super Bowl to go see some delightful live music instead.