Orchestra adds little to Decemberists' show

July 19, 2007


  • Since it opened in the summer of 2005, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park has hardly been the most hospitable venue for rock music. Radiohead and Kanye West were both shut out of performing there, and a Tori Amos show was heavily criticized by donors who consider that part of the park their private high-culture domain.

    Yes, there have been some strong world music and dance shows at the spectacular venue next to the Bean, and one show by Chicago avant-garde genre-dabblers Tortoise. But for the most part, rock has been left out in the cold as the orchestra and its well-heeled supporters have greedily enjoyed their extraordinary new home.

    It was encouraging therefore to see the venue enthusiastically opening its stage on Wednesday to one of the best rock bands in America today -- the Portland quintet the Decemberists -- who played a massive free concert under the aegis of the Grant Park Music Festival and the 25th anniversary celebration for the North Side rock club Metro.

    How did the Decemberists get the orchestra to share its privileged space? Simple: The rockers invited them to the party.

    One of the most consistently tuneful, literate and inventive bands in a genre critics have dubbed ork (for orchestral) pop --with roots that can be traced back to '60s masterpieces such as the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds," Love's "Forever Changes" and Nick Drake's "Five Leaves Left" -- the band has previously only approximated the symphonic elements of its music to date, onstage and or on recordings such as last year's gorgeous concept album, "The Crane Wife."

    "Usually, when we've wanted a string section, it's just been one guy recording a whole bunch of violin parts," bandleader and vocalist Colin Meloy confessed. But at the Pritzker, he found himself standing before the real thing -- not to mention trumpets, French horns, bassoons, tubular bells, tympani and a harp.

    Neither the oppressive humidity nor the sporadic showers -- harbingers of a nasty thunderstorm that thoughtfully held off until just after the 90-minute concert ended at 8 p.m. -- dampened the spirits of an overflow crowd that promoters said exceeded 11,000. But for this longtime Decemberists fan, the rock band/orchestra merger wasn't nearly as successful as I'd expected it would be.

    Too often, the orchestra added graceless bursts of bombast rather than enhancing the dramatic but subtle flourishes inherent in the band's well-arranged murder ballads, multi-part suites and postmodern sea chanteys. The regal "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" was reduced to a parody of a bad Hollywood film score, while the orchestra's most valuable and least intrusive contribution all night was the unison handclapping added to "The Tain," which hardly required Juilliard training.

    Blame it on the classical musicians' tin ear for rock music, a lack of flexibility when asked to enhance a written score or the fact that they were led by the band's arranger, Sean O'Loughlin, rather than their usual conductor, Carlos Kalmar. But the Decemberists were ultimately better off without them, as when they played a stellar show at the Riviera Theatre last April, or when the orchestra sat out for one song on Wednesday, "The Perfect Crime #2," and Meloy seized upon the moment to take off on a celebratory run through the crowd.

    In the end, that was the most rousing rock 'n' roll moment of the night, and the Pritzker deserves to witness more like it -- with or without the orchestra in tow.