The Decemberists – Brooklyn Steel – April 17, 2017
Not to show my age or anything, but (I looked it up), the first time I saw the Decemberists was at the relatively intimate Mercury Lounge nearly 14 years ago. Back then it was as equally inconceivable that a venue like Brooklyn Steel could exist where it now does as it was that the Decemberists might headline one of its first run of shows. The Decemberists were “Portland” before “Portland” was a thing—or “Williamsburg” was a thing for that matter—and still have the same magic today that they did back then. Kicking off the first of three shows in the brand-new room, they felt like an old friend stopping in for a visit. Before we get to their set, though, I have to spare a sentence or two for Julien Baker, who induced chills in the opening slot, reducing the large venue with just her guitar and voice, commanding the place as if holding a heart-to-heart in a living room. If you’re going to one of the next two nights, don’t miss her.
The Decemberists took the stage to a literal fanfare over the PA, frontman Colin Meloy announcing, “Welcome to Night One,” not even waiting until the first song to play with the crowd, joining in on drummer John Moen’s intro to playact lifting up the audience. By the time “The Infanta” began in full, the band and audience were already locked in for a long night of Decemberists-induced fun. With Meloy’s judicious use of the dramatic pause and the lights momentarily catching the disco ball, bathing the crowd in stars, Brooklyn Steel was immediately transformed. Without a new album to promote, the band was free to play from across their vast catalog, and it only took a couple of songs to realize that you could fill quite a few sets with “greatest hits,” things rolling with “We Both Go Down Together” (introduced as Donald Trump Jr. fan fiction) and a sing-along “Down by the Water.” With slight tweaks on their instruments, like guitarist Chris Funk moving to pedal steel or Jenny Conlee picking up her accordion, the band transformed their sound, gypsy swing to fantastical prog rock, all while Meloy sang his pitch-perfect songs, usually of woe, creating new worlds within the greater Decemberists universe.
Olivia Cheney came out to guest on a debut song from a reported fuller collaboration with her, which stretched that universe even more, the band becoming backing musicians as she sang and played harpsicord-esque runs on the keyboard. Another new tune, introduced as “about the state of the union,” centered on the joyful phrase “everything is awful,” but it was actually a rather exultant number, easily inducing the audience to sing along with the chorus. The show closed with more well-worn, well-loved Decemberists material—too many songs to list—including an extended mini-suite from the more-than-10-years-old-but-still-feels-new album The Crane Wife and a fun version of “Chimbley Sweep” complete with a guitar-accordion duel that played like a short skit. Meloy was, as always, equally adept with between-song banter. I mean, who throws out the phrase “conviviality of a campfire” in casual conversation? But the evening did have that intimate feeling, just another evening with old friends. —A. Stein | @Neddyo