Live review: The Decemberists at the Greek Theatre
Pop quiz: Name the divisive West Coast singer who had an unexpected Billboard smash in 2011, with a reputation for singing about infanticide as birth control, conning lovestruck girls into suicide, and flinging money at single moms after a round of violent group sex.
Sorry, Tyler, the Creator, thanks for playing. Come on down, Colin Meloy of the Decemberists.
Meloy’s arch folk-pop band has long occupied a singular niche in American indie rock. Visually, the band is professorial almost to a point of parody -- Meloy often rocks horn-rimmed glasses and tweed blazers with leather elbow patches. His lyrics use so much archaic language that you half expect someone to hoist Yorick’s skull aloft during a set. And yet just beneath the peaceful Portlandian visage, there’s an undercurrent of murder, sexual assault and sociopathy in the lyrics that, if it weren’t for all the accordion, might make even an L.A. skate-rap posse blush.
At the Greek Theatre on Friday, band members tackled a third, complicating element in their persona. After January’s top-selling “The King Is Dead,” they became mainstream American pop stars. At the Greek, this band of bearded dads with a knack for a ripping kidnap-and-rape yarn dealt with fame the way they’ve always reconciled conflicting impulses: with a tongue in cheek in order to have it both ways.
“The King Is Dead” is the band’s gentlest record yet. The album’s country-steeped indie rock owes much to R.E.M. (whose guitarist Peter Buck performed on it). At the Greek, its twangy-jangly singles like “Down by the Water”and “Rox in the Box” -- which Meloy drolly described as “the early-century mining song portion of the set” -- hit a genre sweet spot of a band easing into a lifelong career.
In a confirmation of the ability of National Public Radio to anoint a hit album as surely as Ryan Seacrest, “Calamity Song,” a spry tale about the end of the world as we know it, got a few thousand Angelenos to sing along to the words, “California succumbed to the faultline, we heaved relief as scores of innocents died.” (Again revealing Portland, Ore.’s greatest hope that L.A. be stricken from Earth in fire and tectonic mayhem).
The lone truly somber moment of the set came when Meloy addressed the absence of keyboardist Jenny Conlee, undergoing treatment for breast cancer. But multi-instrumentalist Sara Watkins (a frequent fixture at Largo’s folk scene, and former Nickel Creek fiddler) pinch-hit ably. Meloy’s songcraft drives the band, but Watkins’ close harmonies and drummer John Moen’s dynamic perfectionism gave his gory tales a physical presence.
You wouldn’t know it from Meloy's recent New Yorker Talk of the Town profile and his illustrated children’s book, but his catalog is, in terms of body count, perhaps the most violent in recent music. The band's last album, the stoner-rock opera “The Hazards of Love,” is a Dario Argento movie set to fuzzy prog rock -- a vivid catalog of ways the human body can be maimed. Given the amount of white wine quaffed by yupsters around the Greek (“Have we passed Joni Mitchell amounts of Chardonnay and we’re getting to Crosby, Stills and Nash levels?” Meloy joked), the gleeful blood-letting of “The Rake’s Song” -- the child-murder-as-retroactive-contraception tune -- came as a relief.
But the Decemberists tapped into a vein of darkness that surely lurks in liberal-dad hearts during those Terry Gross “driveway moments.” Maybe the band is a logical followup to the dryly brutal children’s book “Go the F- to Sleep.” If you brats don’t obey, Meloy might send you to bed more permanently.
-- August Brown
Top photo: The Decemberists' Colin Meloy is the frontman for the bookish folk-pop quintet, which performed at the Greek Theatre on Friday. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times.
Bottom photo: Sara Watkins on violin and backing vocals onstage with the Decemberists as they perform at the Greek Theatre. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times