April 20, 2018
Some bands go on tour to play for their fans, to pick up their instruments and make music (and money) for a few hours; others tour to play with their fans, to engage the crowd in their act and have some fun. The Decemberists are the latter and their fans know it. Their concerts are known for witty banter, sing-a-longs and audience participation. Shows build like a story, with tales of love, violence and whimsy. The Decemberists invite the audience into a world they create piece by piece, song by song. Originally slated for the Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre, the show moved to the Fillmore, which only added to the intimacy of being a part of the action on the stage. As it neared eight o’clock there were still people filing in, milling about by bars without lines.
At eight o’clock on the nose, opening act Tennis took the stage. Tennis isn’t what you expect indie pop artists to look like. There’s a distinctly 70’s feel to their physical presence and their music recalls much of that same era. Every song conveys its topic, from feminism to criticism to “constant panic attacks” with a familiar grooviness. Opening with a single spotlight on Alaina Moore, the short set is simple in it’s staging and technicality. Moore stands behind the keyboards for the duration of the performance, allowing her voice to be the focus. Patrick Riley’s more dynamic, dancing and nodding his head, completely absorbed in his guitar. Moore mentioned to the crowd that her niece and nephew were in the house, jokingly asking the crowd to “make us look cool.” Kids are tough critics.
The husband and wife duo Moore and Riley find their inspiration sailing the coasts of the US, and their music evokes the smooth breeze of calm waters. Waves of keyboard and guitar rhythms back lyrics that drift through the microphone like seafoam. Moore’s vocals sound like they were poured into a snifter–smooth, warm and intoxicating with a just a hint of smokiness. She’s that rare performer whose voice sounds better live than on the album. It’s a fitting start to what’s shaping up to be a subdued evening.
As Tennis left the stage, the crowd had grown but had yet to fill the top level. Fans waited quietly for The Decemberists to take the stage. People could be heard saying “Excuse me” and “Oh! I’m sorry” as they maneuvered through the more tightly-packed areas. There were no short tempers, no spilled beers, no neighbors jostling for a better view. Everyone seemed docile, as if this was exactly how the night should be going.
The Decemberists took the stage with “Everything Is Awful,” not missing the opportunity to comment on the unexpected move indoors. “We didn’t sell enough tickets” said lead vocalist and principal songwriter Colin Meloy, getting a supportive cheer from the audience. Though the crowd was in fact smaller than expected, they were dedicated and appreciative. Fans could be heard singing along during most every song and swayed silently during down tempo numbers such as “Of Angels and Angels.”
Though the Fillmore is a smaller venue than the amphitheatre, The Decemberists curate an intimacy that would no doubt transcend a larger scale. Meloy could make any venue feel like the corner of the neighborhood pub, with nothing keeping you from the music or the people making it. He got especially familiar when he perched on the edge of the stage with virtually no buffer from the crowd, joking that other shows get security while he relies on telling the crowd “that [floor] is lava!.”
The banter seems to loosen up the crowd, and the first big cheer of the night came for the opening notes of “Cutting Time,” performed by a seated Meloy. The Decemberists are known as storytellers and each song creates a mood different from the last. During “Shank Hill Butcher” one could close their eyes and imagine themselves in a pub in Ireland, with a day’s pay and a pint of plain in hand. The jazz-like “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect,” featuring a standing bass, transports the crowd to an underground lounge filled with dancing couples.
Chris Funk gets in a few jabs at Meloy and the audience (when his mic is hot enough) and received cheers for his saxophone solo from the audience during “We All Die Young.” Jenny Conlee (accordion, pianist, organist) is a highlight, especially on “Down By The Water” in tandem with Meloy’s harmonica where the shrill swagger of the pairing once again calls to mind the bluster of the British Isles. Meloy’s voice, at times reminiscent of Michael Stipe in its tone and pure simplicity, got the spotlight during “Of Angels and Angels,” as the rest of the band left the stage, leaving only Meloy and two backup singers.
As the show progressed the crowd grew louder and more alive. The heavy synth, driving guitar and thumping bass of “Severed” stands alone from the rest of the cannon but pushes the energy of the room. Building on that momentum “O Valencia!” opens to the biggest applause yet, and the energy changes as the crowd begins to dance, clapping along with the instrumentals. Heading into the closing number the Decemberists have the audience on the edge of their seats. There’s more to this story as the stage empties and the lights fade. The crowd doesn’t budge.
The first encore begins with “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes,” the song’s tempo building with the crowd’s anticipation. The Decemberists are known for splashy, rewarding encores, and almost everyone is exactly where they stood throughout the night. Their loyalty is met with “Ben Franklin’s Song” the hilarious and hugely popular track cut from Broadway’s “Hamilton” penned by Lin Manuel Miranda. Any good fan knows the b-sides always have some gold. With “I’ll Be Your Girl,” the title single from their latest album, The Decemberists thank the crowd and leave the stage once again. And once again, no one moves. The fans know there’s something more, and they’re here for it. The band takes the stage once again and the roar fills up every inch of empty space. As Meloy explains the audience participation they’ll need for their final act, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” you get the sense that everyone in the room knows this part. As the story unfolds you can feel a sense of excitement building. The once docile group is gleefully cheering, clapping, and stomping along as the song builds up to the climactic encounter with a whale. As Funk signals the crowd, the air fills with the sarcastic agonized screaming (being swallowed by a whale is painful). As the screams dissolve into cheers, a giant, inflatable whale emerges from the darkness off stage left and swims across the front of the stage. As the whale and the band make their exit, the crowd is still buzzing with energy. This may be the end of their imaginative journey with The Decemberists but the adventures of the evening could be passed along for days to come.