Words by: Carlye Wisel
The Decemberists with The Grant Park Orchestra
07.18.07 :: Jay Pritzker Pavilion :: Chicago, ILM
Wet, hot and free — three words more likely used to describe a wet t-shirt contest than a performance by The Decemberists. But, amid the rain, heat, and overwhelmingly large crowds, Portland's folky pop-rock five-piece put their 19th-century charm and thesaurus-laden wit on display for a show that was both far from ordinary and far from flawless — that is, until its stunning encore.
Accompanied by the Grant Park Orchestra, The Decemberists' collaboration flailed at times, almost in sync with the intermittent rain that poured down on their sticky, soaked audience. The 14,000 attendees cramped into every nook, cranny and crevice surrounding the immense steel band shell of the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park. While fans peered over walls and watched from the lawn, the pavilion seats were, for the most part, occupied by diehards who waited in line all afternoon to obtain them, seated alongside season ticket-holding older ladies and gentlemen who inferably questioned who "these Decemberists" playing with their beloved orchestra were.
The performance opened with "Crane Wife 1 & 2" as the dark clouds swirling overhead finally spurted raindrops, dispelling the uncomfortably muggy heat that lingered in the air. High-pitched violins emphasized Colin Meloy's uniquely accented vocals, but while the orchestra increased the fullness of the sound the brass section made the largest impact on the longest track from 2006's The Crane Wife. Unfortunately, a jarring guitar entrance by Meloy raised a proverbial eyebrow to the seemingly epic pairing.
Although it proved to be an interesting venue to hear their songs - Meloy himself commented on how nice a treat it was to hear this extension of their music - there were issues between the two collectives. The orchestra played beautifully, as did The Decemberists, but the two did not mesh well together. Throughout the Picaresque-heavy show, the orchestra was often offbeat due to late entrances and overall lagging, and tended to overpower Chris Funk (guitar), Nate Query (bass guitar/string bass), John Moen (drums) and Jenny Conlee (keyboard/organ).
The Decemberists with Grant Park Orchestra
07.18 by Carlye Wisel
But, for every rain cloud, there was a silver lining. While the chorus of "The Infanta," was marked with missed accents, "We Both Go Down Together," a violin-backed song in its recording, featured impressive pizzicato and ascending scales. "The Bagman's Gambit," which highlighted a cymbalist so offbeat it was frustrating, also contained a fantastic violin solo. Logistically, facing two ringleaders - Meloy and conductor Sean O'Loughlin - back-to-back and expecting perfection, especially in their first collaboration, is near impossible. And these missteps and slip-ups became most apparent when The Decemberists played a mid-show song on their own.
Giving the Grant Park Orchestra a break during "The Perfect Crime 2," the sound was immediately and staggeringly less expansive. It quickly became apparent how much the orchestra was drowning out the group, and Meloy wasn't the only one taken aback by the ability to clearly hear Moen's drum kit and Funk's electric guitar. Seeming a bit uncomfortable handling the venue's vastness without a bellowing group of instrumentalists pounding behind them, Meloy hopped around the stage, asked everyone to stand up and tried to regain the intimacy lost by the orchestra's participation by running through the pavilion's aisles.
Rounded out by "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" off of 2003's Her Majesty and crowd favorite "O, Valencia!" from The Crane Wife, the show nearly concluded amid recurring thunder with The Tain, an 18-minute EP consisting of five movements that travel from eerie circus-like musings to an emotive 13-note thematic melody. The grandiose collaboration once again had its ups and downs, but regrettably took away from the piece's striking mystery with its enormity. The set fittingly closed with "I Was Meant for the Stage," which was, quite possibly, the most balanced song of the night.
Unwilling to end on a serene note, The Decemberists' encore quickly proved that they were indeed meant to perform. At Meloy's prompting, fans suppressed by rules, boundaries and security guards the entire night came sprinting toward the stage. "Where've you been all my show?," he mused as people flooded into the aisles, resulting in a panic attack by the venue security. Fittingly, the encore started with "16 Military Wives," a song that is as anti-authority as it is anti-bullshit. With a "mom and dad are out of town" aura that spread throughout the crowd, a giddy dance party ensued, as though the entire night had been a warm-up for the actual show – the encore.
Lightning and thunder erupted near the beginning of the participation-heavy "The Mariner's Revenge Song," where the audience was instructed when and how to yell like they were being swallowed by a whale. Under an ominous sky in the heart of Chicago, the tightly packed crowd swayed back and forth, mimicking choppy waves with their human sea until it was time to let out terrified screams and high-pitched shrieks. The energy was astounding, and as the band sped up the instrumental section as more and more rain fell. Though the Grant Park Orchestra took more away from the music than it gave, The Decemberists used their final two songs to prove that no one will rain on their Vaudevillian parade. Except for Mother Nature, that is.
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