The Decemberists Live at Radio City Music Hall, June 10, 2009


Robyn Hitch­cock & The Venus 3 (includ­ing Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Bill Rieflin of Min­istry, R.E.M., and The Humans) opened with an enjoy­able 30-minute set. I was unfa­mil­iar with Hitch­cock, but by total coin­ci­dence had just days before seen his appear­ance in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Get­ting Mar­ried. His quirky non sequiturs between songs (“I had a root canal this morn­ing, which is why I’m wear­ing a hat” — which he wasn’t) con­trast­ed with his focused, tight songs. The Decem­berists’ Col­in Meloy briefly joined in on tam­bourine and back­ing vocals.

Robyn Hitchcock and The Venus 3 live at Radio City Music HallCol­in Meloy joins Robyn Hitch­cock & The Venus 3 as they warm up the crowd

I’m a late­com­er to The Decem­berists, only catch­ing on with their third album The Crane Wife (2006), which fea­tures a guest appear­ance by Lau­ra Veirs, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, on the won­der­ful track “Yan­kee Bay­o­net.” My inter­est was fur­ther piqued by a review (that I now can’t track down) that com­pared them to ear­ly Gen­e­sis, of which I am also a long­time fan. It’s a bold com­par­i­son, for few would clas­si­fy The Decem­berists’ music as pro­gres­sive rock. But it is fit­ting inso­far as their com­po­si­tions are often epic nar­ra­tives, encom­pass­ing styles rang­ing from pas­toral folk to hard rock, all per­formed with high musi­cian­ship that eschews flashy indi­vid­ual solo­ing. Fur­ther bol­ster­ing their prog rock cred, the first half of The Decem­berists’ set was the entire­ty of their 2009 con­cept album, The Haz­ards of Love.

In ret­ro­spect, a con­cept album was inevitable for a such a band that had already shown a pen­chant for lengthy sto­ry-based songs like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” (on Picaresque, 2005) and “The Crane Wife Parts 1–3.” Com­pared to Gen­e­sis’ grand but slight­ly incon­sis­tent epics “Supper’s Ready” and The Lamb Lies Down on Broad­way, The Haz­ards of Love is actu­al­ly one of the most cohe­sive con­cept albums I’ve heard. It rivals The Who’s Quadrophe­nia for clar­i­ty of vision and cohe­sive­ness of its recur­ring musi­cal themes.

The Decemberists live at Radio City Music HallMy cam­era is momen­tar­i­ly over­whelmed by the pro­ceed­ings

An instru­men­tal organ intro (sor­ry to keep bring­ing them up, but pos­si­bly an idea bor­rowed from Gen­e­sis’ “Watch­er of the Skies”) launch­es the epic fairy tale. The role of a girl that falls in love with a for­est crea­ture is sung on record and live by the airy, sweet voice of Laven­der Diamond’s Becky Stark. My Bright­est Diamond’s Shara Wor­den, a pint-sized, mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist pow­er­house, blowed everybody’s hair back as the evil for­est queen. How does a girl that small have such pow­er­ful pipes?

Although a few tracks can stand on their own (espe­cial­ly “The Rake’s Song”), the entire suite deserves to be heard in one piece. It was a very bold move to release a 58-minute song suite at a time when the long-play­er album is dying, and music is con­sumed track-by-track and ran­dom­ly shuf­fled by iPod algo­rithms. Per­son­al­ly, I had found the album a lit­tle slow to absorb, but now that I’ve wit­nessed the whole thing live… wow. It’s bril­liant, and made to be expe­ri­enced live, in one piece.

The Decemberists live at Radio City Music HallBecky Stark & Shara Wor­den join The Decem­berists to cov­er Heart’s “Crazy On You”

The sec­ond set most­ly fea­tured songs I didn’t know, so it’s time for me to vis­it Ama­zon MP3 to buy up their back cat­a­logue. Peter Buck came back out to join them for a cov­er of “Begin the Begin” from my favorite R.E.M. album Lifes Rich Pageant (I was unable to shake Michael Stipe’s hook “The insur­gency began and you missed it” from my head the entire walk home from the show). Stark and Wor­den rejoined the band for a full-blood­ed cov­er of all things, Heart’s “Crazy On You.” Their ren­di­tion was total­ly faith­ful, and yet some­how man­aged to sound both like a Decem­berist orig­i­nal as well as some­thing Fleet­wood Mac might have done. They end­ed on a high note for me, with one of my per­son­al favorite Decem­berist songs, “Sons & Daugh­ters.”

Offi­cial band site:

Buy The Dece­me­berists’ The Haz­ards of Love and Robyn Hitch­cock & The Venus 3’s Good­night Oslo from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.