History: Not Just for Nerds Anymore

Performing encyclopedic anthems...The Decemberists at Maxwell’s

October 16, 2004, Hoboken, NJ

There I was—crouched on the floor of Maxwell’s, the famous bar and club adorning Washington Street in Hoboken—imitating the “Shout!” scene from Animal House with 300 others while Colin Meloy directed from the stage.

A rather unexpected event at a Decemberists show.

As Meloy cued us awkwardly to “get a little bit softer now,” and the band mirrored our actions with their instruments, an extended bridge for the encore “The Chimbley Sweep,” it occurred to me that the Decemberists were not what I thought they were, all along.

I had pictured a ghastly group of shut-ins, history buffs and admirers of literature, American and English. Having been a fan of the Decemberists since the first time I laid ears on “Los Angeles, I’m Yours,” and having studied every pirate tale, homoerotic war story, and quaint declaration of love Meloy could throw at me; who dusted his stories with fine arrangements and an acute sense for strong melody, imagine my surprise when I saw how much fun the band had on stage, performing their encyclopedic anthems in front of a salivating and appreciative audience.

I had thought beforehand that we should bring pillows to the show, expecting the deliberate pace that the Decemberists follow to sedate the small audience into sitting on the floor—an experience I had suffered years earlier at a similar Belle & Sebastian show. It was clear from the beginning, however, when Meloy pushed the words “Tell your daughters / Do not walk the streets alone tonight,” on opener “Shanty for the Arethusa,” that the show would be anything but ordinary. The band sneered through more aggressive songs like “The Bachelor and the Bride” (mp3) and “The Soldiering Life” (mp3) and bounced merrily through pop-oriented “Billy Liar” and “July! July!” And through it all, it seems they had the time of their life. Whether jokingly dueling for attention or exchanging glances, the band beamed.

Meloy also had a surprising sense of humor regarding his lyrics. I had imagined anyone writing music around Victorian-era characters could only be serious about it—but watching Meloy laugh at himself during awkward words like “stevedores” was a pleasant surprise. The Decemberists’ collective love of eccentricities and storybook characters is an inside joke.

Who would’ve known that the band would get such a resounding response? It’s easy to see it now: the baroque, hazy arrangements and Meloy’s crystalline voice are hard to ignore, the absurdities in the lyrics create a fantastic image of other-worldly situations in distant times.

The band saw none of these qualities lessened in the live atmosphere. Meloy’s voice rang crystal clear; his strain hits each note on its stride and lets it roll delicately into the next. Underneath swells of organs, theremins, and bells present a soft support. When the group decided to break, on the magnificent “Red Right Ankle,” a seamless transition to the type of subtle beauty found on a Decemberists record was made.

And at around one in the morning, we were still biting. Colin Meloy looked at us and smiled. We sang the words, “I am a poor and a wretched boy / A chimbley, chimbley sweep.” Inside, they knew they’d gotten over on us all. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

More Decemberists mp3s available at Hush and Kill Rock Stars. And if you dig the Decemberists, you really ought to check out Quasar Wut-Wut, whose new album Taro Sound has been released on our own Glorious Noise Records. Download mp3s and then buy it here. Thanks!

3 thoughts on “History: Not Just for Nerds Anymore”

  1. Really good article. I’m a sort-of fan of the Decemberists, as I heard “Leslie Anne Levine” and “The Legionnaire’s Lament” and became curious. But when I heard “The Tain” I said, “Hot momma! Now This is a band I can get into!” But on delving further into their catalog, I haven’t heard anything else (recorded) that has the grit and atmosphere that “The Tain” does. Is that a direction they have departed from, or is that a direction they’re moving too? I hope it’s the latter. Anyways, I enjoyed reading that, and it definitely makes me want to go see them live now. Thanks!

  2. Ya know, just reading the line “Tell your daughters” from Shany gave me chills. Can’t wait to see ’em live. Whenever, you know, they go on tour again. Hmmmmmmm.

  3. I saw them in Birmingham, England. Fantastic, one of the best band i have seen. The Tain is a bit of a departure from their earlier stuff but i heard some new songs from their forthcoming album and they seemed to have the same ‘grit’.

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