Third Times a Charm for The Decemberists at Center for the Arts in Buffalo

Touring behind their early 2015 album, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, The Decemberists brought their show to the Center for the Arts in Buffalo. It was their third time at the venue, but the first time that they sold it out.

Toronto quintet Alvvays (pronounced Always) opened the evening, performing the excellent material off of their debut self-titled album released last year. It was their first in a run of shows with the Decemberists, after they were held up at the US border and had to miss their engagement the previous night in Pittsburgh. The trials and tribulations of being an opening band continued unfortunately, and the sound was downright awful throughout their set. Squeezed into a small spot at the front of the stage, they plowed through a quick 30 minutes that fell somewhat flat, through no fault of their own. The heavily distorted low-end, drowned out whatever other sounds were present.

After a quick and extremely punctual changeover, The Decemberists took the stage innocently enough. Colin Meloy, his acoustic guitar and a lone spotlight. He started up the first track on their new album, the appropriately titled, “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” Simultaneously a dark backdrop displaying some female archers dropped behind the stage. One by one the remaining members of the band, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, John Moen, Nate Query and two backup singers including the fantastic Kelly Hogan, entered the stage. A second backdrop fell in front of the first, creating a dimensional representation of the new album’s colorful artwork. The band kicked in, Meloy revved up the energy, jumping on to the drum riser, running into the front of the stage, strumming with ferocity. Not only was the singer addressing his audience, but within the first three minutes, he was making a pronouncement: “We are the headliners, and we are here to entertain the heck out of you!”

Early on the audience called out their requests in the silence between songs. Meloy answered that they had a set list, and they were happy with the way it flowed. And he wasn’t kidding either. The set list was constructed almost as carefully as their well crafted songs. As would be expected, the latest album was best represented. The album itself hasn’t particularly grabbed me, it lacks the overarching character and completeness that their previous efforts have included. The individual songs however, suit their live show well, and blended seamlessly with their time-tested material. The evening included the live debut performance of “Anti-Summersong” (video below). Through perfect song placement, including material from their entire catalog, Meloy and the band played the room like a puppet. Controlling the energy throughout the night, they perfectly brought it to a head late in the set. The seated audience roared to its feet, almost on cue, and stayed there the rest of the way.

Meloy wasn’t afraid to lay bare some of the messier moments in the honing of his songwriting craft. He revealed the original lyrics to “The Calamity Song” as sung to his son one morning over breakfast – Hank eat your oatmeal. Later also confiding in us the worst song he ever wrote, which concerned Dracula’s daughter; And yes, we should all be glad that one was scrapped.

The band, seven strong, had the ability to sound like much more. Each member played various instruments throughout the night, filling in whatever was needed for each song and providing a dynamic range of sound. Accordion, trumpet, pedal steel, banjo, percussion… During “The Rake” Conlee and Funk came out with floor toms, banging away with rhythmic bombast. Meloy then orchestrated the audience in a three-part clapping exercise that worked flawlessly and incredibly into the mix. The audience would be called upon again to become an eighth member in a sing-along on the ensuing 16 Military Wives.

Old songs were given fresh legs, such as with early era hit “Los Angeles, I’m Yours.” Conlee’s jazzy organ and the backup vocal oohs and aahs gave it a funkily awesome Stevie Wonder vibe. Somehow their live mainstay, “The Mariner’s Revenge” was kept feeling fresh. A large confetti-spewing whale was carried out on stage by the backup singers and it “devoured” the band, which lay lifeless on the stage. A fitting end for The Decemberists. What other band would/could/should play a theatrical Russian-folk-song inspired sea shanty as their big closing number?

Set List: The Singer Addresses His Audience, Cavalry Captain, Down by the Water, Calamity Song, Grace Cathedral Hill, Anti-Summersong, Make You Better, The Wrong Year, The Island, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, Carolina Low, A Bower Scene >Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga), The Rake’s Song, 16 Military Wives, O Valencia!, A Beginning Song, 12/17/12, The Mariner’s Revenge Song