The Decemberists appreciate the little things then finish Philly off with a double tap at the Fillmore - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

The Decemberists have long been appreciated (and sometimes dismissed) for the cleverness and theatricality with which they approach rock music. Emerging from a Portland, Oregon music scene where, to an outsider’s eyes, volume and visceral pleasures are the prevailing wind — see Sleater-Kinney, Modest Mouse, Dead Moon, an embarrassment of indie rock riches in that town — Colin Meloy and co. can come off pretty, thoughtful, and dramatic.

Because The Decemberists like story songs. They like concepts and well-built bombast. They’re into that good ol’ English major shit: wit, irony, arcane words, unreliable narrators, etc. Spread across their 10 albums are several single-shot nigh-musicals with “I am” choruses: “I am a Chimbley Sweep,”“I’m a Legionnaire,” and so on. Catchy and efficient crowd-pleasers, all.

But lately, kind of a long lately, listeners may have noticed Colin Meloy warming up to sincerity and simplicity in his songwriting, a straightforwardness that fits neatly among all the band’s genre-hopping literary jawns. But it’s a whole other thing nonetheless. These are smaller songs that embrace repetition and express desire and desperation, scene-setting be damned.

Take for example “All I Want Is You,” one of several songs from As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, due in June, which appeared in The Decemberists’ setlist Wednesday night at The Fillmore. It’s a little lovely acoustic number that in a gentle way recalls the playful daydreaming of the jazz standard “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

The Decemberists | photo by Patrick Rapa

“Don’t want stunning wordplay,” Meloy sings over light strums of his acoustic guitar. What else doesn’t interest him? “Run-on phrases,” “drinks and downers,” “all the wives of Ohio” (kind of a weird one). But mainly, and often, he delivers the thesis: “all I want is you.”

Much later in the set came “A Beginning Song,” a rising tide full of moving parts and moving images, but with a similarly singular emotional punch: “If I am waiting, should I be waiting?” he begs again and again to the heavens. “If I am hopeful, should I be hopeful?”

But it’s hard not to project those lyrics onto, you know, our whole Modern Situation, which I think we can all agree very much sucks. That song’s off 2015’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Did we even know then how terrible? (Cue Forrest MacNeil: “Life. It’s literally all we have. But is it any good?”)

They did not do “Once In My Life,” off 2018’s I’ll Be Your Girl, and that’s fine, but that includes probably the best known of these “simple” Decemberists mantras: “Oh for once in my life, please can something go right?” It’s a blank wall onto which we can paint all our frustrations.

Most of the set, of course, was not so somber and/or uncomplicated. “Don’t Carry It All” was wonderful as always. “The Crane Wife pt. 1,” “The Sporting Life,” the still-jarring and psychotic “Severed,”“16 Military Wives,” bangers all. Bangers of a sort.

After another new one, “Burial Ground,” Meloy explained that the word “malaria” merely fit his rhyme scheme, and offered an apology to anyone in the crowd currently suffering from the ailment.

Propelled by a hip-shaking Latin beat, laced with bleating horns and a springy accordion, and beset by magenta lighting and the occasional devil reference, “Oh No!,” yet another one from the forthcoming record, was especially engaging. It brings to mind all those swing morality tunes aboutsin, or “Shoutin in the Amen Corner,” or that song about Robot Hell from Futurama. Jaunty tunes about Satan are tight. Or maybe “Oh No!” has a whole other thing going on, and I did too much time in Catholic school.

The literal and figurative showstopper, of course, was “Joan in the Garden.” Moody, pretty, explosive and weird, the 20-something minute epic constituted the entirety of the encore (and it’s the closer on As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, too). It’s classic Decemberists for the first little while, sung, it seems, by a writer trying to will a heroine onto the page and into a story of consequence. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m fine with being wrong.

The Decemberists | photo by Patrick Rapa

Vocals and keys soar and we’re caught up in an ethereal, emotional swell and then feel it fade. At this moment, any reasonable song by a reasonable band may well have let the song end there, but this is one of those very rare but not unprecedented lengthy Decemberists behemoths, and so some mood shifts are coming.

The melody unmoors. The beat dissolves. A stormfront moves in, a gaggle of moody ASMR twitches, ghostly sing-song, R2D2 squelches, creaks and moans, the incessant smack of beetle wings against a porchlight.

In the back of the room, conversations emerge in the din, so sure some people are that this song is done, this show is done. Surely what we’re witnessing now is a letting go, a last gasping wind down. But no! Here’s guitarist Chris Funk emerging from the fog with just the heaviest, boldest, Black Sabbathiest riff in Decemberists history. And then Meloy recalls Ozzy for a second, and Jenny Conlee (the coolest Decemberist — faint praise perhaps) blazes away on the synths in a way that’s not not Dio-esque. And the Decemberists are suddenly, briefly metal. The last five minutes of “Joan in the Garden” are a majestic eruption and it shuts everybody the hell up in glorious fashion.

Ratboys | photo by Patrick Rapa

Despite their name, opening act Ratboys delivered bright, upbeat, not at all dirty or ugly indie-pop. (Sorry, rats and boys.) “It’s Alive” and “Alien With a Sleepmask On” were the catchy-as-hell standouts, of course, but don’t sleep on “Black Earth, WI” or “The Window.”

Hailing from Chicago, frontwoman Julia Steiner offered a few heartfelt words about the great Steve Albini, the news of whose death had been hanging over music fans since early that morning. She didn’t know the man, but noted that his influence was all around in the music he worked on and the music that music inspired.

Both The Decemberists and Ratboys are on the night three lineup of WXPN’s NON-COMMvention, which kicks off tonight at 8; watch a video webcast of the show here and check a photo gallery from The Fillmore below.

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