Near the close of The Decemberists’ performance at a near-capacity Overture Hall on Tuesday, singer/guitarist Colin Meloy strapped on an acoustic guitar adorned with a pro-union Wisconsin decal. “So you like my sticker then?” he asked coyly as a roar swept through the crowd like a great tidal wave approaching the shore.
With that, the six-piece Portland crew, rumored to be taking a lengthy hiatus following this current tour, launched into a thumping “This Is Why We Fight” that rung out like a triumphant call-to-arms.
Such peaks were rare at the onset of the band’s 100-minute set, which warmed up as gradually as an aged car on a frigid winter morning. Perhaps the relatively upscale confines played a part in the group’s early timidity. In those opening moments, Meloy seemed taken aback by both the relative stillness in the room (“You guys are quiet,” he remarked) and the empty seats that dotted those rows closest to the stage. Regardless, the crew forged ahead, delivering a dour “Raincoat Song” that mirrored the gloomy weather outside and breezing through a flickering “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” before finally connecting with “Rise To Me,” a gorgeous tune that guitarist Chris Funk layered with lovestruck sighs of pedal steel.
Still, the air in the room remained relatively static until Meloy, his black-framed glasses and plaid, short-sleeved shirt giving him the appearance of an indie bookstore clerk, invited the crowd closer. “There,” said Meloy as fans moved up in droves to fill the yawning cavity in front of the stage, “Now it’s starting to feel like a real show.” Though short-lived — security began methodically clearing the fans out within minutes — the experiment pumped new life into both band and audience.
From there, the group progressed through multi-part fairy tales (a near-epic “The Crane Wife: Parts 1-3”), biblical, end-of-days tunes with body counts that rivaled Hollywood disaster flicks (“Calamity Song”) and at least one murder ballad (“Eli, The Barrow Boy”) that came across like a long-lost passage from Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”
While older material still found Meloy flashing a New York Times crossword champ-worthy vocabulary, songs off the band’s latest, “The King Is Dead” (Capitol), sounded much more at ease. “Don’t Carry It All,” blossomed like a spring garden, Meloy singing about casting the yoke aside amidst a flowering backdrop of accordion, acoustic strumming and airy violin (courtesy of Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins). “June Hymn” conjured similarly sunny images that played counterpoint to the gray, slushy mess awaiting concertgoers outside the venue.
Between songs, Meloy paid tribute to the pro-union protesters (“We were very impressed with what was happening here”) and joked that Madison’s current trend towards civil disobedience might make it more difficult for the security guards to clear away those fans he invited down to the front of the venue. “Careful,” he cautioned as officials attempted to usher people back to the proper seats, “These are Wisconsinites we’re dealing with.”
Guards would have had equal difficulty corralling The Decemberists during a playful version of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” a woozy, accordion-driven sea chanty that the band turned into raucous bit of musical theater. Gamely acting out the tune, the ‘mates swayed back-and-forth like they were on a ship adrift in the ocean before sprawling out on the stage like well-dressed corpses as Meloy sang about being swallowed whole by the great monster that rose from the deep.