Live Review: The Decemberists at House of Blues, February 13, 2011

Photo credit: Ryan Cowen

The Decemberists might be immensely popular right now, but their success wasn’t earned overnight. The King Is Dead debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 last month, but it’s their sixth album, and longtime listeners are well acquainted with their literate, anachronistic folk-rock. But one thing even diehard fans may not know about the Portland minstrels is that they put on a heck of a fun live show.

Sporting a pair of studious glasses and a flannel shirt with requisite hipster snaps, Colin Meloy proved a witty and amiable front man at House of Blues. The singer/guitarist struck an easy rapport with the audience, and frequently took time between and during songs to address and heckle the crowd. Ably backed by his ragtag band, Meloy launched into assured versions of King tracks “Down By The Water,” “Calamity Song,” and “Rise to Me.”

The King Is Dead may be the one buttering The Decemberists’ bread at the moment, but in a pleasantly surprising move, they actually leaned more heavily on Picaresque, their third and arguably best album. Classics like “We Both Go Down Together,” “Eli, the Barrow Boy,” and “The Bagman’s Gambit” were all delivered with the group’s trademark panache and old-timey accents.

The band’s tragic tendencies could have easily made for a stuffy or pretentious live show. But throughout their set, The Decemberists were loose and mischievous, frequently deviating from their songbook in favor of comical breakdowns and embellishments. The otherwise downtrodden “The Chimney Sweep” — off 2003’s Her Majesty — took an unexpected turn as the group got lost in what Meloy called a “blues vortex,” which consisted of the band vamping as drummer John Moen improvised vocals and bicycle kicked from the stage floor.

As the set neared its end, The Decemberists launched into the epic Picaresque track “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which, in a fun bit of audience participation, required everybody in the venue to scream as if they were being swallowed by a whale. Returning to the stage for a second encore, they finally closed with the tender “June Hymn,” from The King is Dead. It was at once affecting and accessible, and served as lasting proof that The Decemberists’ newfound success couldn’t have happened to a more deserving band.

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