Artsy Decemberists rock on

April 19, 2007


Given their ornate music -- elaborate chamber pop and a modern take on old-fashioned Celtic folk-rock -- and the poetic ambitions of last year's concept album "The Crane Wife" (with lyrics freely employing words such as "saber," "belfry" and "Arabesques"), the Portland quintet the Decemberists skirts the line of high-art parody.

At some points in the group's more than 90-minute set at the Riviera Theatre on Wednesday, the first of a two-night stand, I couldn't help thinking of the progressive-rock spoof in "Spinal Tap," during the immortal Stonehenge scene.

The Decemberists didn't have props per se, just a Roger Dean-style backdrop and some oversize garden-party lights. But the second song of the night was a four-part, 12-minute suite featuring 12-string acoustic guitar, upright bass, glockenspiel and pump organ and titled "The Island: Come and See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel the Drowning."

Rock just doesn't get more artsy than that.

The show could have crashed then and there, especially during the melodramatic bridges when creative writing major turned guitarist, vocalist and bandleader Colin Meloy let loose with a Jon Anderson meets Geddy Lee yelp over roiling Hammond organ arpeggios that keyboardist Jenny Conlee lifted straight from the Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake & Palmer songbooks.

Mind you, I loved all of those progressive-rock heroes -- but only when they weren't skimping on the second half of that equation. The Decemberists triumphed because they kept things rocking with a propulsive forward momentum and because even at their daintiest and most pretentious, the hooks were never lacking.

There's nothing wrong with a Southern Gothic murder ballad full of fussy chords or songs about the battle of Stalingrad complete with detours into odd time signatures if you can still bang your head to the beat and sing along with the choruses.

Poignant tribute
Throughout the night, Meloy charmed the crowd with a sharp wit, joking about faded local heroes such as Ministry and Peter Cetera haunting the wings of the Riv. But he also showed a more serious side, commenting on the tragedy at Virginia Tech, yet urging people not to assume that any aspiring writer who pens tales of murder and mayhem may be a potential killer.

These comments were followed by a transcendent cover of Brian Eno's "I'll Come Running," which, though it had nothing to do with the topic at hand, became a poignant tribute to the dead college students.

Opening the show and failing where the headliners succeeded were My Brightest Diamond. The New York trio's ambient pop was pretty but trifling, and bandleader and erstwhile Sufjan Stevens sidekick Shara Worden wore out her welcome with a self-important stage presence and a wispy to screechy voice long before the odd covers of Edith Piaf and Led Zeppelin.

The openers showed that progressive rock is best left to the pros, and the Decemberists announced that they will return to Chicago on July 18 to play a free show at Millennium Park backed by the Grant Park Orchestra as part of the Grant Park Music Festival and Metro's 25th anniversary celebration.


When: 7 tonight
Where: Riviera Theatre, 4750 N. Broadway
Tickets: $26
Phone: (312) 559-1212