Update: the Decemberists have released a BitTorrent of their latest video, 16 Military Wives. It’s a great song!

My favorite Portland band, The Decemberists, play a show at the Crystal Ballroom tonight. I won’t be able to catch the concert, but I did see them on last night in Eugene, the first stop on their new tour.

The Decemberists have a new album due out Tuesday, which means you can be sure of one more entry on them before the end of the month. Previous entries on The Decemberists include: The Decemberists, The Decemberists (Live in Concert), Red Right Ankle, and The Decemberists (recorded live from KEXP).

I drove to Eugene on a cold and blustery afternoon which featured the first rain the valley has received in nearly a month. I had a warm and hearty meal with Paul and Susan (about which more tomorrow), and then we headed to the show.

As we walked into the Woodworkers of the World meeting hall, I was startled to hear somebody say “hey” to me. There stood Tom Denton, whom I mentioned yesterday as the supplier of one of the songs for my latest mix. He’s the only other person I know in Eugene besides Paul and Susan; what are the odds that I’d run into him at this concert?

The Woodworkers of the World meeting hall (or Wowhall) is a smallish, boxish sort of room, perfect for a mid-week concert aimed at college kids. The space held a few hundred people, most of whom were dressed in what must pass for the latest in fashion: dirty clothes and pierced lips. (I hadn’t realized that piercings were still so popular. It seemed that everyone present was required to have some part of their head pierced, and preferably multiple parts. I saw one guy with two studs in his upper lip; it looked like he had fangs. I felt naked.)

By design, we missed the opening act. In fact, we arrived just as The Decemberists were taking the stage. The crowd cheered. Toward the front, some bozo with a digital SLR took photo after photo after photo. Flash flash flash. (This went on for the entire show.)

Colin Meloy, the band’s lead singer, has an easy, jocular repartee with an audience. He’s chatty. “Ah, Eugene,” he said. “I went to school here.” And, of course, the crowd loved it. “Isn’t it finals week?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you be back at the dorm studying?”

The group began the show with the ever-bouncy “Billy Liar”:

Billy Liar’s got his hands in his pockets
Staring over at the neighbor’s, knickers down.
He’s got his knickers down.

They played old favorites, of course, but also featured a fine sampling of stuff from the new album. I’ll admit that I didn’t care for all of it, but some of the songs — “Mariner’s Revenge Song”, “Sixteen Military Wives” — were classic Decemberists. (Which means precious clever lyrics, bouncy strings, a smattering of accordion, and lots of songs with nautical themes.)

Midway through the show, Colin made an announcement. “We’re going to do a cover song,” he said. “We’ve never done this live before. Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Petra Haden.” (The group made some lineup changes recently, adding Petra as vocalist and violinist. This was her first show with the group.

Paul leaned over to me: “Hounds of Love,” he said, referring to a twenty-three-year-old Kate Bush song.

“Ha ha,” we laughed at Paul’s silly joke.

Our laughing faded quickly as we were shocked to hear the tinkling piano that marks the beginning “Wuthering Heights”. It wasn’t “Hounds of Love”, but it was a Kate Bush song. How strange is that? Stranger still was that Petra did a marvelous job with the song. “Wuthering Heights” is difficult, yet she nailed it. The crowd roared, giving the biggest applause they’d give all night. (I wanted to shout “Petra rocks!” — about as clever a pun as I’ll ever devise on my own — but the crowd was too loud, we were too far back from the stage, and I was too shy.)

It was a great show. The Decemberists shine in live performance, especially in a small venue like the Wowhall. For a time, I hoped to catch them again the following night at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, but it just didn’t work out.

Will the band ever become truly popular? I doubt it. They’re too smart. But they’re certainly worth a listen if you’ve never heard them before. Amazon has all their albums for sale, including the newest, Picaresque; their last album, Her Majesty, which is loaded with great songs; and their first album, Castaways and Cutouts, which is perhaps less mannered and more easily accessible.

More Decemberists links:

  • All of the band’s gear was stolen from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Portland sometime early Thursday morning, after the Eugene show.
  • Lead-singer Colin Meloy recently did a mini solo tour. He loves Morrisey, and sold a CD of Morrisey covers on his tour. One cover (which we heard him do last year in Portland) is “Sister I’m a Poet”, which you can download here.
  • From what I can piece together (and I may have some of this wrong), a woman named Carson Ellis does much of the band’s artwork. (And it’s great artwork.) She and Colin Meloy are dating.
  • For Mr. Briscoe: here is an mp3 of The Decemberists covering my favorite Joanna Newsom song, “Bridges and Balloons”.
  • Colin Meloy on the internet leak of the new album.

There you go. That’s plenty of Decemberists news for now. I’d dearly love to hire them to play a concert at our new house sometime, but they’re probably far too expensive now, eh?


On 18 March 2005 (08:40 AM),
J.D. said:

And here’s a plea:

I can’t find anywhere online to purchase the Colin Meloy solo EP, with its six Morrisey covers. I’ve downloaded three of the songs, but I’d dearly love to buy the thing. If anyone who stumbles on this entry can point me to a copy, I’d be grateful.

(Also, I’d love to be pointed to previous Petra Haden recordings.)

On 18 March 2005 (09:02 AM),
J.D. said:

Also, I find it truly hilarious that The Decemberists web site links to a Patrick O’Brian page. They’ve several songs with thick nautical themes. I listened to POB’s eleventh Aubrey-Maturin book, The Reverse of the Medal (what does that mean exactly?), on my drive to Eugene and back.

This was the first POB book to actually move me to tears. The end of chapter nine is maudlin, but touching.

God, I love these books.

On 18 March 2005 (10:23 PM),
mart said:

jd: decemberists reviewed in the latest issue of entertainment weekly. i’d say that means they’re on the mainstream radar…

On 18 March 2005 (10:23 PM),
mart said:

jd: decemberists reviewed in the latest issue of entertainment weekly. i’d say that means they’re on the mainstream radar…

On 21 March 2005 (09:41 AM),
Rich R said:

The Decemberists are going to be in Dallas on the 31st of March. I won’t be too sick to go to the show this time. The is an indy record store in town Good Records,that Colin will be playing in store earlier that day. When I asked the store owner if he would be selling any of those EP’s (as he brings them to shows on occasion), he said yes he would have some.

I plan to go, so I’ll try to snag one.

Also if you haven’t heard the 5 Songs EP, you really need to get it. Fantastic stuff!

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