The Decemberists â€œFlight of the Mistle Thrushes Tourâ€
Live at the Electric Factory October 7, 2005
It was a walk only a few short blocks from my apartment in the Northern Liberties, Philadelphia. The wind had kicked up as a rain storm was coming through and I hurried into the venue crowded with a large mixture of fans. I had never actually heard of The Decemberists before reviewing their album Picaresque earlier this year but the music had intrigued me so greatly, I had to see what they were like in person. After making my way up to the balcony I was able to survey the surroundings. I had arrived late to the opening act, Cass McCombs, which was performing as an acoustic trio (McCombs with backup). They were sitting in front of The Decemberistsâ€™ backdrop; a fabric banner with a thick patina of images of mistle thrushes owing to the name of their tour.
Unfortunately, the McCombs trio gave a lackluster performance; there was absolutely no energy and whoever the girl was that he hired to play with him seemed confused as to what her role in the performance was. She picked up a trombone, played three notes and put it down. She picked up a drum, held it for a song and put it down. She lightly tapped a tambourine that increasingly became off-tempo with the rest of the group. She stared at her shoes and swayed which seemed to be her largest part. The crowd was unbelievably polite which is very uncharacteristic for Philly. I have seen acts of equal inferiority booed off the stage in different venues yet the audience applauded and even included a few good-natured whistles. I thought the quiet and off-synch tambourine warranted less of a positive reaction, but this is the City of Brotherly Love. I suppose everyone felt bad for them or at least saw the raw potential of McCombs and his assistant male musician who were in fact talented but had absolutely no stage presence. Thankfully, I had arrived in the middle of McCombsâ€™ set and it was only a few drinks before they climbed off stage.
Images of the late Andre the Giant played on the walls accompanied by bits of â€œPeter and the Wolfâ€ by Sergei Prokofiev during the set change and sound check. This was an odd choice as the music of both the opening and headlining bands are more on the sedate side. Old school wrestling brawls including legends such as Andre and Hulk Hogan are not exactly what come to mind when listening to â€œEli the Barrow Boy.â€
Presently, The Decemberists arrived on stage much to the delight of the entire venue. The crowd erupted in to emphatic cheers as the players tumbled onto stage. The difference between the two bands was evident even in the smallest form: the usage of the tambourine. Whereas the tambourine player from Cass McCombs didnâ€™t seem entirely sure what to do with it and couldnâ€™t really keep a beat regardless, Jenny Conlee from The Decemberists was spinning and twirling, furiously playing against her legs and hands, all the while keeping the tempo despite her activity. The energy put forth by the bands was vastly different as well. McCombs placidly sat on stools whereas The Decemberists were all over the stage. Singer Colin Meloy switched up and played the drums on a song while the incredibly animated drummer, Ezra Holbrook, ran frantically around.
The show started off with â€œThe Tainâ€ from their five part EP The Tain and continued with more of their older songs off of all of their other albums including Meloy’s self-proclaimed autobiographical song â€œMy Mother was a Chinese Trapeze Artistâ€ from their first EP, Five Songs and â€œLos Angeles, Iâ€™m Yoursâ€ off of Her Majesty the Decemberists. My personal favorite was â€œJuly, Julyâ€ off of Castaways and Cutouts; a fun and jaunty dance number with an underlying poppy current. All kinds of instruments were used on stage from their standard upright and electronic basses to their violin and accordion to a twelve string acoustic to what looked like a MIDI triggered electronic saxophone (played by of all people, Holbrook) and the keyboard harmonica instrument used in the intro music from the 80’s TV show â€œPerfect Strangers.â€ Once they were through all of their older songs, they started upon the tracks off of Picaresque.
They played everything I wanted to hear and nothing I didn’t, starting with â€œ16 Military Wives.â€ They flowed from my personal favorite â€œEngine Driverâ€ straight into my other favorite â€œOn the Bus Mallâ€ just like on the album. It was the perfect collection, driving through tracks like â€œWe Both go Down Together,â€ â€œEli the Barrow Boy,â€ â€œThe Sporting Lifeâ€ and â€œThe Legionnaireâ€™s Lament,â€ ending with what seemed to be everyone’s favorite: â€œThe Mariner’s Revenge Song.â€ This final song incorporated audience participation, where everyone was asked to scream like bloody murder when guitarist Chris Funk snapped his arms shut at the mention of the whale’s jaws. When the real moment arose on stage, Funk reappeared with a homemade set of whale jaws with red streamers flowing from the teeth. Though unanimated and sounding like cheers in the practice, it truly sounded like a few hundred people were all being slaughtered at the same time. I myself shrieked until I was hoarse. Then, to the pleasure of the entire building, the band returned after their bows to play not one but two encore songs: â€œMr. Blue Skyâ€ not from any listed album or EP and â€œThe Chimbley Sweepâ€ from their LP Her Majesty the Decemberists. During the final song, Meloy motioned for the audience to sit when the song reached a quiet part to which they obliged and sprang back up as one body when it crescendo-ed into a climactic finale.
Unfortunately, as polite as the crowd was for Cass McCombs, they were almost unchanged; I felt like I was the only person in the joint dancing my ass off. I was horrified to see a zombie-like floor standing, possibly mesmerized, yet almost completely motionless until the finale. There was a weird sense that the audience was not having the best time that they could.
This band has truly made a fan out of me. They not only write and produce beautiful, thoughtful, poignant and fun songs, but they perform them impeccably. Meloy’s voice is as rich and tightly trained in person as on the albums, and the entire band was completely on point. They put on a great show dancing with each other during duets and involving the audience as much as they could. If I hadn’t stressed it enough in the review of Picaresque, The Decemberists are an amazing group and deserve the fans that their hard work and passion accrue.