When I found out that I was going to see The Decemberists last Sunday, I squealed, jumped, and there was definitely some dancing. After falling head-over-heels in love with Picaresque last year, and currently coping with my inability to stop replaying The Crane Wife, I doubted that the band’s live performance could top my fervor for the recordings. Sunday night’s performance at Tucson’s Rialto Theatre refuted any and all apprehension.
Lavender Diamond opened, and established the show’s tongue in cheek mood when an audience member provided an olive green frog’s head as a costume for keyboardist, Steve Gregoropoulos. Lavender’s music has a hippie, jovial vibe, and vocalist Becky Stark’s quirky charisma is unparalleled. In a flowing gray dress with a red flower pinned at her shoulder, she looked like the grown-up version of Millie, empress of the painfully nerdy, from Freaks and Geeks. Swaying and clapping like a jazzercise instructor, Stark had no trouble engaging the audience; not to mention her delightful and impromptu rendition of Salt-N-Pepa and En Vogue’s “Whatta Man.” Lavender original, “You Broke My Heart” highlighted the five song set and showcased Stark’s placid, angelic soprano.
The house lights remained dim while techs tuned guitars and stagehands positioned set lists. Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” played during the interim, and the charming touch of nostalgia only increased my enthusiasm. The narrated instrumental stopped, and a mysterious voice prompted the audience to visualize a stroll through a desert landscape, “And, in this desert there are six distant figures nearing.” Then The Decemberists entered the roaring Rialto. Lights flashed to reveal the stage, simply adorned with red spherical lanterns and a Japanese woodblock scene as a backdrop.
“The Crane Wife 3” began without delay, and directly segued into “The Island,” both from newly released album The Crane Wife. Self-deprecating splendor emanated from the band. The Decemberists’ versatility shined as members incessantly swapped instruments: guitar for mandolin, accordion for piano, keyboards for drums, and violin for percussion. “We Both Go Down Together” and “The Engine Driver” satisfied my craving for Picaresque material, and were the absolute tops performance-wise.
Meloy introduced “The Perfect Crime 2,” and the audience caught a glimpse of the more playful, relaxed Decemberists. The Crane Wife’s ever-friendly “O Valencia” and most eerie “Shankill Butchers” followed. “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” and “Odalisque” were the only departures from Picaresque and The Crane Wife. “Yankee Bayonet” was completely discarded.
Meloy’s expressive clarity mixed with violin, mandolin, upright bass and accordion crafted subtly sinful and bittersweet music. “The Crane Wife 1& 2” spurred a funny sea of shaggily bobbing heads, and “Sons and Daughters” extended well beyond the album’s five minute version. Then Lavender Diamond returned to engage in a loveable sing-along. The band announced their farewell and, desperately, the crowd begged for one more song.
Jubilantly, Meloy charged back onstage for “16 Military Wives.” He collapsed to his knees, and serenaded a lady in the front while stroking her hair. Laughs and claps rewarded the antics. He willingly put on the same frog’s head that Lavender’s Gregoropoulos sported earlier, sang into a fan’s cellular phone, and saluted the audience. Meloy left the conventional musicianship to the other five, while he amusingly gallivanted at the front of the stage. He split the crowd in thirds and initiated competition for the rowdiest interpretation of la-dee-dah’s. After completing the round of his melodic making, Meloy said goodnight and discreetly departed. The Decemberists gave the crowd clear-cut evidence that their live show surpasses their extraordinary recordings, leaving them ecstatic and overwhelmed with their musical appetites sated.