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One wonders if Colin Meloy et al get together once every few years and say to themselves, “As The Decemberists, what is the weirdest thing we can do next?” or if The Decemberists are just quirky people who get together and say, “We should really write an operetta. About fawns.”
Regardless, friends, The Decemberists. I’m nuts about ‘em. What some pass of as a self-conscious explosion of the emo hipster fedora persona, I like to think of as a joyous, innovative, uninhibited, artistic process that we’ve been privileged to listen to. When I found out that The Decemberists’ latest album (Hazards of Love) was an operetta, I was nervously curious. Perhaps, having signed with a major label, they were over-compensating with something mildly unpalatable to get back their indie cred? Maybe they’ve just gone bananas?
No! It took two listens, but Hazards of Love thoroughly won me over, and assured me that the band was still the brilliant, absorbing band I loved. It’s the story of William, a fawn by day and man by night, and Margaret, who is quite possibly a forest fairy. They fall in love, and start having nightly woodland dalliances, and the Queen of the forest – who rescued William when he was a baby and turned him into a fawn – is all mad. But she agrees to let him have one more night with Margaret, he will return to her in the morning (to die? It’s unclear). But then! Margaret is abducted by The Rake, who sings a lovely song about how he killed all his children, and then whisks Margaret away. This is all very convenient for the Queen, who helps The Rake get across the rushing river, happy to get Margaret out of the picture. But lovesick William goes inevitably after Margaret, making a deal with the river that if he can cross safely, and rescue Margaret from danger, they will come back and duly drown later. I don’t mean to spoil the ending, but yeah, they drown. But they drown kissing! So…love!
This stuff is nuts. But The Decemberists make it work. Last Thursday at The Riviera in Chicago, as they have on the entire Hazards tour, they played the operetta straight through. It amounts to roughly 60 minutes of continuous music – no breaks, no banter – during which the whole trippy, mystical story unfolded in front of us. Every now and then, during an instrumental interlude or a bandmember’s solo, one or two of the band would be able to duck offstage to grab a new water bottle or, I don’t know, plunge their fingers in an ice bucket, but otherwise the entire band played and sang for an hour.
One couldn’t help but feel grateful for such an obvious effort, and the result was truly a great show. Frontman Colin Meloy sings the part of William, grounding the narrative with his familiar voice. Guest vocalist Becky Stark (of Lavendar Diamond) sings the part of Margaret, and her ethereal voice filled the theatre in an enchanting way that is missing from the album, on which she sounds sweet and small. Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) sings as the Queen, and she brought the flipping house down. The show didn’t really bring the crowd to life until her first solo. I was sitting in the middle of the balcony, easily 200 feet from the stage, but when she belted out, “Your life for the evening/ I will retake by morning./ Consider it your debt repaid,” I kind of wet my pants in fright.
Although the album is a single work, within it are tucked all the Decemberists’ specialties. “Isn’t it a Lovely Night?” and “Annan Water” have Colin Meloy in the plaintive ballad mode of “Grace Cathedral Hill” or “As I Rise.” “The Rake’s Song” and “Repaid” have the same fist-pumping, jump-up-and-down quality of “The Infanta” or “We Both Go Down Together.” And the infectious effervescence that have made The Decemberists great are sprinkled throughout, in the four permutations of “Hazards of Love,” and William’s theme, “The Wanting Comes in Waves.”
The Decemberists have been touring this show for a good few months, so the fact that they produced 60 minutes of pure verve was commendable at least, and inspiring at best. The crowd went wild.
After a short break, the band came back and played another 50-minute set of their perennial favorites. It was so generous and, as is obvious, combined with the sight of Colin Meloy in suspenders to launch me even farther over the moon for this band. That second set – including “O, Valencia,” “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” “Grace Cathedral Hill,” The Crane Wife trilogy, and “Sons and Daughters” – made me very happy I’d plopped down $25 for the concert tshirt I will undoubtedly wear at next year’s Pitchfork.
This being the third Chicago show the band has played this year, Colin Meloy asked at one point, “Man, Chicago, how many times do we have to come back here?”
Never enough, Colin, I’ll be there every time.
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