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