To me, there is something intrinsically exciting about The Decemberists. Sure, they’re rooted in mostly acoustic folk-rock, not exactly rare for a Portland-based band. But there is so much more to their music — the progressive rock influences, the completely unique singing style of Colin Meloy, the sheer number of instruments Chris Funk utilizes — that always keeps me coming back ready for more.
But even more stirring than those facts is that The Decemberists are not a generationally specific band. Sure, those from my generation love the band enough, but we’re not the only ones. Modest adult-alternative radio play has helped an older crowd find their music, and if you put on a Decemberists record around during a family gathering, you’re less likely to hear complaints than if you put on any other band of today. And that — to me — was what their set to open the main stage at Bumbershoot was all about: their ability to appeal to music fans of all ages.
As I looked around after they’d play a good five songs or so, I couldn’t help but notice all the older folks who were there for Bob Dylan’s highly-anticipated headlining slot, and not a one of them had anything but a smile on their face. Heck, some of them were even dancing — not an easy feat for a venue that, to my knowledge, wasn’t even serving wine.
Of course, none of this would have been possible if The Decemberists weren’t bringing it. And while the five-piece was a bit sloppy after taking a break from shows for much of the last year (well deserved after their ambitious Hazards of Love tour during the 2009 summer), they were still fun, on point when they needed to be, and vital — especially with three new songs to test out.
The whole thing got off to a slow start with “The Infanta,” a great song off their best album (Picaresque), because the stadium crowd was a bit tentative. But Meloy was having none of that and went into frontman mode during “Billy Liar,” getting the crowd to sing counter melodies — risky for a second song, but a risk that turned out to have a high reward.
This got the audience’s attention, allowing the group to plow through new material from an as-yet-untitled album that Meloy said was nearly finished (a pleasant surprise if I’ve ever heard one). The first new tune, “Down by the Water,” was pretty standard for the band — nautical theme, mid-tempo, chiming electric guitar and accordion in the background. It got interesting with “Rise to Me,” though, which was country-tinged not unlike Harvest-era Neil Young or The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” — not a bad way to go in either case. The new songs were capped off by “June Hymn,” a slow and pretty folk tune that saw Funk sit down at the keys and, like the others, featured Meloy blowing like crazy on harmonica.
Not being a band to leave its fans hanging, The Decemberists kicked it into high gear from there, banging out all the hits you’d want to hear — in order, “Engine Driver,” “O Valencia!” (which Meloy said was about “Latino warfare” and included both a jokey reggae breakdown and a tease of the group’s self-proclaimed worst song “Dracula’s Daughter”), “16 Military Wives,” “Rake’s Song,” “Won’t Want for Love” (a Hazards highlight that required Meloy to sing some parts originally done by Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark), and the completely epic, four-part prog-folk suite “The Island.”
Technical proficiency problems aside, it was one of the best sets of the entire festival, and one that I surmise made them some new fans. Not bad for a festival performance.