The Decemberists Warm to Strathmore

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

If you've never seen the Decemberists live before, any trepidation is entirely understandable: Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert called their music "hyper-literate prog rock," a fair, if cheeky, assessment that ought to send a sane listener fleeing for the nearest White Stripes album. But as the Portland, Ore., five-piece band proved in a jovial set at the Music Center at Strathmore Monday night, Decemberist-in-Chief Colin Meloy's orotund lyrics and Renaissance Faire preoccupations are leavened by his bright melodies and engrossing storytelling. He's theatrical in the best sense.

Meloy may rhyme "bayonet" and "arabesques" without embarrassment, but the man understands pacing, making a 110-minute set seem to fly by in a half-hour. Opening with "Oceanside," from their 2001 debut EP, the Decemberists then segued into the first of a half-dozen tracks from last year's excellent "The Crane Wife" LP. Every element of the show was perfect, from the elegant stage design, with nine spherical paper lanterns suspended above the band, to the set list. The selections, although weighed heavily in favor of "The Crane Wife" and 2005's "Picaresque," found room for a trio of relative oldies, including the haunting closer, "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade."

The wood-paneled music hall turned out to be an ideal venue for Meloy and company's ballads of widows and brigands and battlefields, permitting a level of sonic detail that would be tough to match in a club. Better still, the mob of comparative lit majors who packed the Strathmore (you'd have thought they were selling horn-rimmed glasses at the T-shirt stand) were the best kind of concert crowd: enthusiastic and participatory, but also respectful enough to keep quiet during the actual performances.

Greeting the audience, Meloy tried to coin a pithy slogan for the Strathmore's suburban locale -- "where Bethesda is waxing and Rockville is waning," anyone? -- before resorting to an abortive cover of R.E.M.'s "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville." By the time the Decemberists conscripted the crowd to take part in "The Mariner's Revenge Song" -- in a nod, perhaps, to the Spinal Tap-itude inherent in their material, the number featured a hilariously staged, um, whale attack -- there wasn't a conscientious objector left in the room.

-- Chris Klimek

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