Review: The Decemberists at Belly Up Aspen
Minutes into The Decemberists’ much-anticipated Belly Up concert Saturday night, after the band romped through the new song “Everything is Awful,” two crew members — outfitted in suits and ties — stepped onto the stage and sprayed the crowd with confetti cannons.
But other than that celebratory touch, the band’s Aspen debut focused on the music.
Lead singer Colin Meloy was uncharacteristically tight-lipped between songs, dropping the banter and crowd interaction that’s typical of a Decemberists live show. He offered a few clipped and ironic intros — “This is a song about the end of the world,” he said before “Calamity Song” — but otherwise stuck to playing and singing.
The 80-minute set also deviated from the band’s standard concert structure of two sets with an intermission and an encore. They instead played for about an hour and soon returned for a three-song encore, which did not include the much talked-about, synthesizer-tinged take on “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” that has been an encore staple on the current tour.
So the band’s long-awaited Aspen show may not have been exactly what fans expected, but it was a stellar showcase for the band — and especially for its new songs from the recently released album “I’ll Be Your Girl.”
The attentive near-capacity crowd, which included Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at a table in the reserved seating section, hung on every note and sung along to most every word.
The songs from “I’ll Be Your Girl” translated remarkably well to the stage and proved to be the high points of the show. In all, the band played seven songs from the new album, opening the concert with the bopping and anthemic “Everything is Awful” followed immediately by “Your Ghost” and “Sucker’s Prayer.” Later in the night, the crowd ate up the sing-along friendly rocker “We All Die Young.” Between the new songs, the show pulled from each of the band’s studio albums except for their 2002 debut and 2005’s “Picaresque.”
High points from the rest of the catalog included fan favorites like “Down by the Water,” “O Valencia” and the rollicking “Hamildrops” single “Ben Franklin’s Song” from last year, with lyrics by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Seeing The Decemberists live hammers home the extraordinary sonic wizardry of keys player Jenny Conlee and guitarist Chris Funk, and accentuates how much of the band’s distinct sound comes from these two, who squeeze an orchstra’s worth of melodies out of their seemingly bottomless bag of instrumental tricks. The complex orchestrations of these songs often call on the pair to swap instruments several times within a single song — piano to synth to accordion for Conlee, for example, or acoustic to electric guitar to mandolin to saxophone for Funk. It’s astounding to witness, especially up close in an intimate setting like Belly Up. Only at a Decemberists’ show are you going to get a crowd roaring for a xylophone solo, as the Aspen audience did here for Conlee’s on “Billy Liar.”
The brilliant and beloved storytelling aspect of Decemberists songs, it’s worth noting, is not lost in a live setting. While I’ve come to expect rock band vocals to get drowned out in the sound mix in concert, the Decemberists don’t let that happen and Meloy clearly articulates his vocals. So a newcomer to the band could have followed along easily with even the most baroque tales in these songs, though it seemed there were few newcomers in this rapt audience and few who didn’t know every lyric. (Again, only at a Decemberists concert will you hear a hall full of people singing “And the Andalusian tribe/Setting the lay of Nebraska alight.”)
The chamber pop epic “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes,” the centerpiece of the encore, landed like a mission statement for where The Decemberists are as a band right now. Opening with moody unaccompanied piano from Conlee, with Meloy soon joining with mournful vocals and a proto-Decemberists mermaid tale, there was a dramatic synth drop after the first verse and a slow build of dense instrumentation, ending with sludgy heavy metal guitar passages from Funk. This is a band that’s still growing after 18 years and pushing the boundaries of its sound without abandoning what makes it one of the great American bands of the 21st century.
The evening began with a 30-minute thrill-ride of a set from the Louisiana-based indie pop act Givers, who quickly won over the early-arriving crowd with their peppy, genre-smashing sound. Hopefully they’ll be back in Aspen for a headlining slot soon.
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