First things first: The opener. If one had to sum up Andrew Bird’s performance in a single word, it would be “control.” I may as well bring up the whistling right off—since that’s what Bird did, pursing his lips to the mic and emitting a tone so clear and loud and rich with vibrato I half expected an eight-story golden retriever to come bounding out of the sculpture garden. But as impressive as the force of Bird’s whistle was the fact that it never fell off the pitch, even as Bird improvised and plucked his violin and negotiated a series of loop pedals. Nor did his voice, which he’d keep coyly low before before leaping into that eerily Jeff Buckley-esque wail. Bird built his layers busily but loosely, his slight frame never betraying the least hint of urgency as he buzzed about the stage like a chef concocting a gourmet stew on short order while his three-piece backing band kept the heat on.
Bird’s casual mastery was engaging on it own—which was necessary to some degree. My friend articulated what may be the most apt criticism of Bird’s music I’ve heard, which is that he composes songs vertically rather than horizontally. That is, his songs generally have very little forward momentum—they don’t take us from A to B.
A rock opera, of course, is the opposite sort of phenomenon; which is probably why, despite a great set, Bird was soundly upstaged by the Decemberists and their whirlwind musical narrative, The Hazards of Love.
As you may have read here before, I really like The Hazards of Love; by the sixth or seventh listen, it had become for me the unlikeliest of dish-washing albums, and had transformed me into the unlikeliest of dishwashers — wailing obscurities and gyrating about, Shara Worden-style. Woe upon the incorrigible ceramics that win my wrath! I might have broken a few cereal bowls.
Still, the narrative is so extravagant that it could only achieve maximum effect as a staged performance. For those of you who don’t listen to this album every time you do dishes, let me give you the SparkNotes: Margaret gets bored hanging around the bower with the other lithesome maidens, so she goes wandering in the taiga. And, in the long tradition of maidens who spend too much time in the woods, she meets a strange, shapeshifting prince, falls in love, gets caught up in some black magic, ends up on the wrong side of a forest queen with serious boundary issues, and yadda yadda yadda she gets abducted by a pathological rake who killed his kids, and the prince has to save her.
They die, but don’t worry about it—you didn’t really care about them anyway. The Hazards of Love isn’t about character empathy or painting a keen portrait of the human condition; it’s about having a fucking blast. The band plays dress up, guitarist Chris Funk finally peels the shrink wrap off his hi-gain pedal, and frontman Colin Meloy plumbs every inch of his inner nerd and every dog-eared page of his Oxford Unabridged Dictionary to unfold in his mallard tenor a tale so snarled with mythical intrigue he could have sold it as a role-playing game.
Apropos, the stage backdrop was a silk screen draped with tumbling, gauzy cocoons and lit in blood and chlorophyll. Meloy, dressed like he wanted to borrow just a moment of your time to discuss the Good News, played the role of Narrator/William the Forest Prince. Becky Stark, as Margaret, wore a white sequined gown of the sort usually found in a giant trunk in the attic; I’d bet anything it originally came with a giant cone-shaped hat. Worden, as The Forest Queen, dressed in a loose black dress and silver tights, leaving her free to steal the show with some body-rocking that was extemporaneous and silly and improbably sexy.
The Decemberists hardly strayed from the instrumentation or melodies or phrasing from the album versions, but the theatrical medium definitely caused certain songs to pop and others to recede, unexpectedly. For example, “The Rake’s Song”—by far the album’s worst track, which regrettably ended up as the single only because it required the least context—was completely thrilling live, with everyone but Meloy and bassist Nate Query getting Taiko on the tom drums. The finale, meanwhile, a sweet country lament called “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned),” played much flatter than the album version.
Not that it mattered. By the end of the set we were so awash in spectacle and smitten with Shara Worden that Meloy could have sabotaged the encore set by bungling the words to one song and then playing an incomplete folk-jazz diddy (with an admittedly “douchey” chord progression) about Dracula’s daughter—which he did—and nobody would have held it against him—which we didn’t. Because for a group so often bashed as too dark and pretentious to be any fun, the Decemberists on Monday demonstrated why they can be as lovable as any band—hazards and all.
By the way, Brandon mentioned the Heart cover; it seems so far that no one captured Monday’s rendition, but to give you an idea, here’s a fan video from an earlier show in St. Louis: