Live: The Decemberists
Wilma Theatre, Missoula, MT 11/16/06
Growing up in Helena, Montana, Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy took refuge in that community's Grandstreet Theatre-- no doubt an occupational training ground for the thespian leanings of the band's current stage show. It was something of a full circle made then when Meloy remarked to the sold-out audience in Missoula's venerable Wilma Theatre that the backstage area wore the grit and graffiti of an underground punk club, although closer observation revealed that the scrawled walls bore inscriptions more along the lines of, "Cinderella 2001- Becky Was Here," or "Brigadoon '99!" The scene could hardly have been more fitting. This was Meloy returning to his college stomping grounds, returning to the town where he'd fronted the short-lived, country-tinged Tarkio while attending the University of Montana in the late '90's. One might have called the production "Local Boy Makes Good," or "You Can Go Home Again."
Still, despite the planned homecoming, it almost didn't happen. Meloy had been feeling ill the days prior, and the previous audience in Denver had seen the setlist cut short because of it (not to mention the shows after Missoula, where the relentless bug returned with a vengeance and forced the cancellation of planned Vancouver dates). Nevertheless, he soldiered on, and after a brief pre-apology for any illness induced sour notes the band launched into the first strains of "The Crane Wife 3," beginning a diverse and high energy set that included a surprise or two added with the home crowd in mind.
For obvious reasons, the band concentrated on material from their latest effort, including sizzling versions of the two mini-suites, "The Crane Wife 1 & 2," and "The Island," each of which benefits greatly from live performance. It was here that showcased the band's increasing flexibility and muscianship as Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, and Lisa Molinaro, multi-instrumentalists all, met the rotating musical demands by employing a variety of instruments and noisemakers-- a feat that could have easily called for a small orchestra. Elsewhere, drummer John Moen got out from behind the kit to join Meloy with harmonies on the sinister "Shankhill Butchers," the stage drenched completely in a deep red hue, while Funk's hurdy-gurdy formed the foundation for an uplifting version of "Sons & Daughters," the closer to the regular set that found Meloy leading the crowd in singing, "Here all the bombs fade away...." over and over in unison.
While the Crane Wife heavy set was to be expected, there were plenty of older crowd pleasers and pleasant surprises to be had. Songs like "July! July!," "The Engine Driver," and "Apology Song," were all met with rapturous applause, the latter of which receiving the most when it referenced the Orange Street Food Farm, a local Missoula grocery popular with students for beer and other such supplies. That wouldn't be the only Missoulian allusion of the night, as Meloy began the encore with a solo rendition of Tarkio's "Save Yourself," foregoing the setlist's "Red Right Ankle," for something with a local connection. Aside from being a number from Meloy's old band, the song also contains a regional reference in the line, "Where is the lifeline/ Here on the hi-line," the hi-line being the stretch of U.S. Highway 2 that runs through northern Montana. Not surprisingly, it drew a big reaction each time the line came around. Elsewhere, while dividing up the audience for a "la-de-da" sing-along to "16 Military Wives," Meloy quipped, "You'll get it. You're smart. You just elected Jon Tester to senate," drawing another proud Montanan reaction.
Finally, the spectacle closed out with a version of "A Cautionary Song," that featured Funk, Moen, and Molinaro venturing into the audience for a re-enactment of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the trio portraying Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea, respectively. The scene was narrated by Meloy, whose revisionist history included Lewis as a hot-to-trot homosexual before a meteorite ended it all. 'Twas an explosion befitting the evening, sending the storyteller and his traveling band onward down the road, and a thousand musical revellers into the night, oblivious to the chilly wind.
Bonus vid from Missoula:
Plenty more pics from the show here.
Check out reports and images from the rest of the 2006 Rout of the Patagons Tour below.