The Decemberists w/Cass McCoombs: Warming up a Chilly World
J. Gordon
11/23/2005 10:42:23 PM

Ah, Fall. The season of inner warmth in a chilly world; a season of thanks, harvest and heart. And why not have your sound reflect the season with acoustic guitar, violin, and the heat and passion of the cello? That’s just how they did it at St. Louis’ Mississippi Nights on October 16th.

Baltimore-based Cass McCoombs took hold of the stage first. In this crowded venue of mixed ages, this dissonant, folky singer-songwriter who doesn’t really fit in any one genre fit in just fine. Touring on his new album, PREfection—and no, that’s not a spelling error—Cass fits his 4AD record label like a glove with his moodiness, introspection and quirkiness. The audience stood riveted to his somber but humorous delivery over a fascinating sustained reverb slide guitar. With a cool, 80s new wave-type voice (think haunting vocals; e.g., Echo and the Bunnymen, or the Cure) over those chunky Appalachian-experimental guitar parts, this was an eat-your-broken-heart-out performance of the highest caliber.

Next, the classical soundtrack to Peter and the Wolf played overhead while the packed crowd waited for the significant buzz-band of the night: The Decemberists. But this significant buzz was full-scale mania as everyone jammed toward the front of the venue to get the fullest impact of the show. The Decemberists’ came on stage with a violent, exciting crash of mounting noise that shook the house from the rafters to the soles of everyone’s shoes. Vocalist/songwriter Colin Meloy sounds a bit like the Monkees’ Davey Jones fronting the 80s band Dexie’s Midnight Runners—an optimistic, sweet voice that is also full of humor. And there’s something innocent about The Decemberists’ jangly cello-rock, Celtic-pop and alt-rock folk songs—like they’re from another time when we really could believe today is just fine and tomorrow will be fabulous. How needed is that?

In the midst of one of Meloy’s sweet, acoustic song-story, he sang as the son of a prostitute during the war. The story went that his father was a spy and European aristocracy; full of details as rich and moving as a Dickens novel—a period where they’d fit in very well. At the end of the song, Meloy said, “But sometimes I wish I was land-locked, working in a bakery. ‘Cause that's what my father really was.” During their sailor song, a large, hand-drawn whale head with bloody teeth was pulled onto the stage by one of the guys. He ran back and forth, opening and closing its two-halved, cardboard mouth on bandmates, and menacing the audience as the music cheerily played on.

To put it simply: the show featured instrument trading, fan participation, and all fun. How many Decemberists are there, anyway? Five? Seven? Ten? Who can tell when they’re all moving so fast and furiously?

Throughout the evening, Colin Meloy was full of stage banter and mid-show calisthenics, as he led the audience through “rock concert squats,” directing the audience to put their hands in the air. Soon after, he instructed everyone to turn to the person next to you and shake hands, “not being creepy,” he assured, “just being respectful to introduce yourselves.”

As the room heated up, Meloy asked if it was alright if he removed his jacket, the audience hooted and howled. “It’s just a jacket!” he laughed, and then apologized that the band was not going to cover “Raw-Hide” at this performance.

The beauty of The Decemberists’ music may be in the familiar sounds from childhood that are somehow rearranged in surprising combinations. From Beatlesque beginnings, The Decemberists even dip into hokey Richard Harris-style ballads (for you young’uns, he’s that bellowing 70s crooner who sings the song, “Someone Left the Cake Out in the Rain”). The first half of the show was full of life and energy, rhythmic tangents and experiment within a cohesive melody. The latter half of the show contained the fuller, richer, louder songs that make this band THE band to watch today. And who couldn’t warm up to that?


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