Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Hazards of Love, Live

If you're a Decemberists fan, like the new album and have a chance to catch the Hazards of Love tour, by all means do. The format is this: Hazards of Love in its entirety, about twenty minutes' (well-deserved) break for the band, and then roughly an hour of old music too.

I've been a big, big supporter of Hazards of Love since I first heard it, but after hearing this concert, I don't know how you could dislike the album. Most of what I said in my review of the album still stands, with a few new observations.

The band does a wonderful job, as it always does in concert. Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond, who plays the role of Margaret) is excellent. But it's Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond, who plays the role of the Queen) who really steals the show with her stage antics. Excellently cast.

Colin Meloy and Shara Worden, my new favorite person. Who knew the brooding, villainous Forest Queen was so short and cute?

Listening to the album by itself, I've been finding it easier and easier to stop listening after "Annan Water", because the songs seem to get less exciting after that. But remembering the theatrical conceit, of course the songs should get less exciting after "The Crossing", which is the climax of the story. (Specifically, I think it's the cool rock organ/electric guitar bit that really seems like a sonic destination for the album.) Seeing the whole production live, those songs become not only necessary but narratively interesting.

Because the framework of the album is more theater than pop record, this is a collection of songs that really does improve when you see it live. We get scenery, costuming, lighting effects. To carry out the stage performance a few steps further, it might have been cool to do some scene changes--though the background pulled off both "forest" (with green lighting) and "river" (with blue lighting).

This probably strains the upper limit of feasibility, but how about recasting the entire staging to put the band in a pit, orchestra-style? Obviously, the point of the pit is to hide the orchestra, and the point of a live concert is to watch the band. I'm not advocating covering up the band, but maybe there's a spatial organization that creates visual distinction between the "actors" (Colin Meloy and/or Shara Worden and/or Becky Stark, depending on who's important at the time) and the "band" (John Moen, Chris Funk, Nate Query, Jenny Conlee).

And as long as we're going over the top anyway, how about live fireflies?

The rest of the show promised a "tidy selection" of old material, but we ended up with as much material is in Hazards of Love--not that that's a bad thing by any means! The general aim seemed to be to hit a highlight or two from each old album.

If I were momentarily in charge of picking the Decemberists' set list, and I knew that the goal was two songs from The Crane Wife, I certainly wouldn't have picked "O Valencia!" and "Shankhill Butchers". Personally, I'm partial to "The Island", but since that's stylistically very similar to The Hazards of Love, I can understand the not wanting to play it. That restriction probably rules out and of the "Crane Wife" cycle too.

With those constraints in mind, the obvious next choice is "Yankee Bayonet". It's not a song that's easy to perform on tour--you absolutely need a female vocalist to cover the duet part, or the song doesn't work at all. On this tour, though, we have not one but two talented female vocalists, so the Decemberists could have taken their pick--or used them both. I also like "Summersong" a lot, but that one never seemed to catch on with the general fan base as much as I think it should have. Failing "Summersong", I guess "O Valencia!" is an acceptable substitute. I never really got into "Shankhill Butchers", though. I think it's too much buildup, too much brooding tension, and no payoff.

On the other hand, if I had to pick two songs from Picaresque, "The Engine Driver" and "16 Military Wives" would have been up there on my list as well as the Decemberists'. I don't agree with putting politics into music in almost any case, but damned if the Decemberists don't make "16 Military Wives" fun to sing in person. They probably do the "pit halves of the audience against each other" during the "la di dah" bit of the chorus at every show... and it never gets less awesome. (Do they ever perform "The Infanta" on tour? It was the first Decemberists song I heard and still among my favorites.)

The crowd's tepid response to "Raincoat Song" showed how few people payed attention to Always the Bridesmaid. It was pleasant if not particularly memorable. I was surprised to hear "Shiny", which has been around for something like nine years now, and I get the idea it's not oft-performed on tour. Probably the Decemberists just seized the opportunity of "well, we have this steel guitar around, so let's do something with it." I sort of psyched myself into thinking we'd get "California One" too, as long as the steel guitar was just sitting there, but no such luck.

"July, July!" is still one of the most fun songs the Decemberists do, so I was glad to see it show up. "The Bachelor and the Bride" is still not my favorite song, but at least it sounded good. And I wonder if they end most shows with "A Cautionary Song", or if they just coincidentally did at both of the shows I've been to? Those two accordion chords are a darn fine way to end a show.

One thing that absolutely deserves mention is the Decemberists' improv theater. You've got Colin Meloy on stage, backed up by Jenny Conlee on accordion and Nate Query on bass. Chris Funk, John Moen, Shara Worden, and Becky Stark are standing in front of the stage, and Colin Meloy starts making up a story about trains and gypsies. In true "Whose Line" style, the actors and the music change in time with what Meloy calls out. The result is something profoundly entertaining and something that gives further proof--as if we needed it--as to the Decemberists' artistic mastery.

Currently listening: "Don't Bring Me Down", Electric Light Orchestra

No comments: