Concert review: The Decemberists | 05.17.24, The Pageant (with photo gallery)

Photo of the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy by Laura Jerele

w/ Ratboys

Ask and ye shall receive, apparently: when I hyped up the Decemberists show earlier this week, I gave a brief preview of their upcoming new album As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again (which I’ve heard in full, and which is great) and said “it would be a gift if the setlist leaned heavily into this new material.” And that’s just what we got in the band’s Pageant set, with five of the album’s 13 tracks making an appearance, two of which were making their live debut.

The first of those debuts was the very first song of the set, “Don’t Go to the Woods.” The song kicked off what singer/guitarist/bandleader Colin Meloy jokingly called “the gazebo portion of the set,” where the band was clustered at centerstage, playing acoustic instruments while framed by the warm glow of two sets of four yellow globe lights. The song opened with just Meloy’s acoustic guitar and voice, slowly adding a second guitar, standup bass, triangle, and accordion, to beautiful and haunting effect. They rounded out the gazebo set with a pair of songs from 2011’s The King Is Dead, the sprightlier but melancholy “January Hymn” and the harmonica-tinged “June Hymn.” The latter served as a showcase for just how much Meloy has grown as a singer over the course of his career: where he once had two speeds (either hushed, or a harsh, full-lunged bray), his instrument is so much richer and deployed with much more subtlety. Vocally, he’s never sounded better.

The quietest part of the set completed, the band burst out of the gate with “The Infanta,” backed by a galloping beat from drummer John Moen and a roaring guitar solo from Chris Funk. Next came “Burial Ground,” the Byrds-y lead single from the new record, which Meloy cracked “went straight to #1…on non-commercial radio.” The song sounds sunny and had the whole crowd bopping and swaying and singing along, so of course Meloy had to jocularly remind us that the song is “me reminding you, as I try to do at every opportunity, of your eventual end,” but that’s okay, because “We can have a good time and be reminded of death!”

I will quickly run out of synonyms for “jokingly” if I don’t just point out here that, despite the band’s recorded output—which is often quite sad and generally only funny in a wry, professorial sort of way—Meloy is an absolute cutup on stage, with pretty much all of his stage banter being said with tongue firmly planted in cheek. It’s quite endearing and makes a Decemberists concert one of the most fun ways you can spend an evening. That said, occasionally the jokey banter leading into an emotional song like “The Crane Wife” makes for a bit of an awkward transition.

Touring backup singer Lizzy Ellison took centerstage for “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing,” the lone representative from the band’s 2009 rock opera The Hazards of Love. Her vocals were downright operatic, sung in a low register with deep vibrato, while the chugging guitar riffs hit even harder than the already heavy studio version, sounding downright Danzig-esque. I never would have said that Danzig and the Decemberists had anything in common other than their proximity in my CD collection, but here we are…

Meloy went back to cracking jokes about radio placement, saying their latest single “Oh No!” was “currently sitting at #35 on the Latin charts…and sinking.” Before the song started, Meloy started joking about river confluences for some reason, eventually goading Funk (on baritone sax) and Victor Nash (on trumpet) into an improvised impersonation of the Missouri/Mississippi river confluence. (I guess you had to be there.) Once the salsa grooves of the actual song finally kicked in, the awkwardness was forgiven and the crowd got to dancing.

Next came the second live debut of the night, a country-tinged tune called “Never Satisfied” that sounded downright Son Volt-y at times. With its chiming guitars and Nate Query’s nimble, bobbing bass, “The Sporting Life” sounded so Smiths-y that I wrote in my notes that they might owe Johnny Marr royalties, so of course Meloy tossed in the lyrics to half of the first verse of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” to close out the song. This particular song was really firing on all cylinders until Meloy made a couple of weird choices, first tossing it over to Funk for an awkward, seemingly unplanned sax solo, then trying to goad the crowd into a clapalong that he immediately sabotaged by constantly changing the tempo at which he was clapping.

“Severed” was the most reinvented song of the evening, with the icy synths of the 2018 studio version removed entirely and replaced by down-tuned guitars ringing out as single sustained notes over a shuffling drumbeat that gave the tune an all-new energy that sounded, as my photographer compatriot Laura Jerele put it, “thunderous!” The Decemberists are a folk band that likes to try on rock clothes—sometimes they fit and sometimes they don’t, but they really fit perfectly here.

“16 Military Wives” and its “la-di-da-di-da-didadidadi-da” singalong is always a crowdpleaser, so Meloy decided to play it up, manufacturing a rivalry between the folks on the balcony “in your cushy seats!” and the poor people on the floor that had been on their feet the entire time, whom he encouraged to respond with their favorite rude gesture. The competition wasn’t really fair considering how many more people the floor of the Pageant holds than the balcony, but everyone had fun with it, particularly when he shifted it to the people in the back, then shouted “And now just the bartenders!”, receiving nothing but silence and mortified stares in response from the bar staff.

The main set closed with the theatrical “I Was Meant for the Stage,” the music centered on Jenny Conlee’s gorgeous piano work as Meloy, sans guitar, stalked the stage and dropped to his knees as he gave the song the full Broadway treatment.

There are a lot of ways for a band to plan an encore: you can save all your biggest hits for the very end, you can bust out a cover or a rarely heard old favorite, you can treat it like a mini-set with its own gradual build-up to a big end, or you can pull the energy back and end with something tender or sweet or sad. All of those things can work. What I would recommend avoiding, however, is ending your show with a 19-minute-long experimental song suite with a lengthy vocal-less ambient instrumental passage. That’s what the Decemberists did, and while it wasn’t an abject failure, it didn’t really work all that well, either. “Joan in the Garden” managed to build up a decent head of steam in its opening minutes, but the fact that it doesn’t really have a chorus per se really kept it from boiling over, and Meloy’s wails of “Hosanna!” didn’t hit with the same passion as the album version. Then came the ambient noise portion, a whopping six full minutes of it, which is a bit much on the recorded version but way too long for an encore when people have been standing for over an hour-and-a-half and are already a little restless. Then, the song burst back to life with driving Judas Priest-style guitars that brought the song in for a landing. The band tightened the song a bit (it’s 19:21 album runtime reduced to a trim 17:45), but between the length and the removal of any of the jovial attitude of the rest of the concert, it ended what was otherwise a fun night on an uncharacteristically off note.

Chicago quartet Ratboys opened the show with a fun set that exemplified the band’s ’90s alt-rock vibes. Where the Decemberists are generally tightly controlled, Ratboys are just the right amount of ramshackle with their jangly guitars and singer/guitarist Julia Steiner’s sweet vocals (reminiscent of Tanya Donnelly in a live setting) paired with Marcus Nuccio’s powerful, whip-crack drums that propel every song forward. This is the kind of opening performance that convinces you of the need for a headline set in the (hopefully) near future. | Jason Green

The Decemberists setlist:

Don’t Go to the Woods

January Hymn

June Hymn

The Infanta

Burial Ground

The Crane Wife 1

Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect

The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing

Oh No!

Never Satisfied

The Sporting Life


16 Military Wives

I Was Meant for the Stage

Encore: Joan in the Garden

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