Decemberists Triumph At Hollywood Bowl

’Decemberists’I’ll admit that, for various reasons, not the least of which my own cynical predisposition against the willfully esoteric and flauntingly literate indie darling band, I didn’t think they could pull it off, but pull it off they did, and by no small margin. The second in the crowd-pleasing series of crossover LA Phil events pairing up their orchestra with a top-tier indie act, (begin pull-quote) the Decemberists triumphed with an ease and confidence befitting that of a seasoned stadium rock outfit. (/end pull-quote)

Taking the stage in an appropriately summery seersucker suit – his year round concert uniform, not special for the Bowl; make of that what you will – Colin Meloy led the augmented 5-piece straight into the title track from their new one, The Crane Wife. A few minutes in, aloft on the orchestra’s wings, any lingering accusations of “twee” were once and forever allayed. For 8/11 songs, the LA Phil bolstered tunes that, on record admittedly can sound a bit rickety, imbueing them with a full-bodied bigness. They focused mainly on the last two records, with a centerpiece of “The Tain” e.p., with a couple of oldies. Speaking of which, the sour sentiments towards our fine city in “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” were a bit easier to digest with a symphonic chaser. A bit.

When greeting the crowd with “We’re the Decemberists, that’s the LA Phil, and this is the Hollywood Bowl” you gather it was as much to pinch himself that this was really happening. In one sense it is kind of absurd to see a band go from their humble beginnings on Kill Rock Stars to these heights but the truth is, even though they’ve actively cultivated an underdog image, they’ve been pretty ambitious from the get-go and the realization of playing with an orchestra is not that far fetched. Along with The LA Phil’s successful agenda to reach out to the masses with these accessible shows, the notion of playing with an orchestra is not as stogy or even elitist as it once might have been.

The inevitable Belle and Sebastian Comparison: Given the similarities in their bookish (read: nerdy) appeal, the overlap between the attendees of both shows is presumably high and the comparisons inevitable. I think I heard chatter on this very subject as soon as the show ended during the mass exodus from the Bowl. Taken top to bottom, as a cohesive performance, the Decemberists show was probably a more successful show than the B&S version. There may have been many stand out moments in the B&S show (“Lord Anthony,” “Waking Up To Us”), but they are at heart a pop band with increasingly fewer excursions into the symphonic. It’s no fault of theirs, but there just isn’t anything remotely like the Decemberists’s 18-minute “Tain” in the B&S catalog, which, with the LA Phil’s horsepower behind it, was propelled to John Barry-esque epic heights. Also benefiting from a better sound mix, the songs chosen by the Decemberists were sturdy tunes that take well to the addition of strings, never feeling like a stunt.

A semi-political aside: While the show was not part of the worldwide 7/7/07 Live Earth events, it would have been nice to at least get a mention of those events on stage. (Of course, I am making an ass-of-u-and-me and assuming that they and their fans share the expected left-leaning conscientious objections to The State of the World. Any pro-Bush, conservative Decemberists fans, please contact me immediately.) In fact, they dropped a politicalish tune in “16 Military Wives” (about, in part at least, the obliviousness or complicity of the media in the run up to a [read: Iraq] war) from the encore at the last minute, opting for “Chimbley Sweep” instead. The substitution proved to be a big crowd pleaser and definitely the right note to send the crowd home on, it would have been nice to get the crowd la-di-da-ing along to it.

Andrew Bird was a perfect middle act for the evening, mashing up the pop and the classical in his tunes. Looping his violin on the spot, whistling like a human theramin, and playing both guitar and xylophone, sometimes all four during the same song, he gives off an air of mad genius about him, a frazzled Willy Wonka quality that Ryan perceptively nailed early on despite the amount of budget Mondavi chardonnay he has already downed. (OK, fine: that we have downed.) Imagine Jon Brion, but with his own good original songs. There is a double-necked old tyme phonograph thing that spins occasionally on stage that may or may not produce sound, not that it matters either way, as it is a great prop. His three-piece band worked through a whimsical quarter-hour set, at times showing off some jazzy moves with new reinventions of even his most recognizable tracks, which more acts should do. (Related sidenote that means absolutely nothing: Over in OC Andrew’s old compatriots, the retro outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers, were entertaining the Hootenanny crowd.)

Band of Horses were the analog to last year’s Shins as openers for Belle & Sebastian: a great Sub Pop band with a knack for beautiful songs but suffering from a near total absence of stage presence. This isn’t a knock on BOH, but the big venue only magnifies any shortcomings on charisma. The silences between songs hang heavier and absolutely beg to be filled with even the most banal of banter. Say something, anything, guys. The good news is that they sounded great when in the song and the two new ones they aired were solid enough, boding well for their new LP due in October.

Decemberists Set List

The Crane Wife
The Infanta
We Both Go Down Together
Bagman’s Gambit
Perfect Crime #2*
Los Angeles I’m Yours
The Tain
O Valencia*
I Was Meant for the Stage

Chimbley Sweep*

*without orchestra