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High Energy at Lo-Fi Café from
The Decemberists

by Jeremy Mathews   photos by Dave Tada

 
   
 
  Colin Meloy, songwriter
   
 
  Petra Haden, vocals, violin
   
 
  Nate Query, upright bass
   

Whether their latest album had hooked Salt Lake City’s indie music fans after only a week of release or their older albums continue to attract more fans, the members of The Decemberists were greeted to a packed crowd for their show on Monday at the Lo-Fi Café. The purveyors of elaborate folk-tinged indie-pop responded to the turnout with a lively night of music. The band revealed a solid repertoire that shed new light on the quality of its three full-length albums.

The band’s rise in popularity has been clearly observed through its headlining shows in Salt Lake City. A large crowd greeted the group at the less-than-200-capacity Kilby Court in March 2004, following the release of The Tain, an EP of one 18-minute prog-rock epic in five movements, as well as 2003’s Her Majesty the Decemberists and the rerelease of Castaways and Cutouts, which was available on a smaller label before the group signed a deal with Kill Rock Stars. Only two and a half months later in late May, the band had graduated to the larger Lo-Fi Cafe with strong attendance. But the latest show generated a fire-code-pushing crowd at Lo-Fi, which has a capacity of about 500.

 
Jenny Conlee, keyboards, accordion  
   
 
Chris Funk, pedal steel guitar
 

The March 28 show came less than a week after the release of Picaresque, the band’s latest album which finds singer/songwriter/guitarist Colin Meloy’s songwriting a bit more urgent, emotional and angry. The Portland-based six-piece band opened with the same track that opens the album, “The Infanta,” starting with a rumbling drum beat calling Meloy out to sing the opening line and kick things off.

The Decemberists’ music draws from various modern and traditional sources. The resulting songs, with Meloy’s often cryptic and verbally flexible lyrics, sound fresh and antique at the same time. The songs seem to have always existed, yet have just found the right time to take on a tangible, distinct form.

As good as the band’s albums are, a vibrant energy accompanies the compositions and arrangements onstage, whether they have the bouncy energy of “Billy Liar” and “The Sporting Life” or the quiet beauty of “Red Right Ankle,” which Meloy played as the second number of the encore, his bandmates quietly joining him from off stage for complimentary instrumentation.

The nature of live performance brings out the band’s elaborate arrangements and haunting melodies, although some of Meloy’s literate lyrics are lost on the way. In many ways, this trade is a positive, bringing out the pure power of the music for those who don’t like Meloy’s obscure words and Old English style. Songs like “16 Military Wives,” one of Picaresque’s most topical songs studying the politics of war, have a certain melodic poignancy despite rather upbeat arrangements. Other moments were simply fun, as Meloy and guitarist Chris Funk also led some audience participation for “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” an eight-minute work of epic storytelling from Picaresque that required the audience to provide the sound of a whale swallowing a ship’s crew.

The interesting quirks and references of the band’s music may put a ceiling on the Johnny-come-latelies who will make the next Decemberist show even more crowded (but hopefully less dense at a larger venue). But the band has definitely proved itself a viable force with a range that has carried it through three albums, and with any luck there will be some great new music at the next show.

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