Concert review: The Decemberists and Justin Townes Earle defy expectations at the Pageant, Wednesday, April 27
The air outside the Pageant last night was uncharacteristically quiet and calm for a sold-out show. The relaxed crowd that lined up along both sides of the venue in the cold and pattering rain waited patiently to see the Decemberists and Justin Townes Earle play.
Inside the venue, the atmosphere remained laid back as well. For a second, the fans led me to believe that they weren’t really excited to see the show after all.
But as the pre-concert medley music of bluegrass and blues intensified, signaling that the show was about to begin, the crowd grew visibly anxious. When the lights went black they let loose, cheering, yelling and clapping.
Justin Townes Earle emerged on stage under a single spotlight, tall and lanky, dressed in white high-water pants, a grey jacket, brown boat shoes and oversized glasses. Alongside him was fiddle player Josh Hedley with a seemingly shy demeanor, a full beard and a small cowboy hat.
Together, they played a short, unrestrained and rustic set of country blues songs that were fervent and rousing. In a deep, thunderous voice, Earle howled lyrics so wildly that he stood on his tip toes. He strummed his acoustic guitar with such precision and depth that at times it sounded like two guitars were playing. As he sang, he hunched over the microphone and swiftly moved his feet in awkward movements adding to his classically southern nature.
Hedley was quick on the fiddle and vocally commanding as he accompanied Earle. In between songs, Earle delighted the audience with comical short stories that helped to introduce the next song. By the end of the set, the crowd was “lubed up,” as Earle put it and ready for more.
The Decemberists’ performance began with a controlled and effortless disposition, much like their most recent album The King is Dead, but the show as a whole was as obscure, moving and uplifting as the music for which the group has become recognized.
The band was introduced by a strange glowing orb which claimed to be Portland’s mayor Sam Adams hovering high above the venue. Adams gave instructions to the audience to introduce themselves to those around them and close their eyes to imagine a serene rainforest. The stage was set with a backdrop of the same forest, from which band members alluringly surfaced.
Throughout much of the performance, the audience was noticeably mellow and motionless, and once again, I questioned its interest. However, between songs the room came alive in unexpected applause and shouts of “I love you” to frontman Colin Meloy. Soon I realized, the audience wasn’t bored, but rather locked in, mystified and hanging on every word, chord and drum beat the Decemberists offered.
Special guest Sara Watkins electrified the audience with her violin work and surprisingly burning vocal contribution, contrary to her usually soft and dainty sound. In one song, she stomped and pounded her feet against the stage as she sang, as if conjuring up some dark part of herself.
Meloy engaged the crowd with humorous small talk between songs, commenting on members of the audience, making political references to Obama and the recent revelation of his birth certificate and even poking fun at the Kings of Leon.
“The Rake’s Song” was a hair-raising highlight of the show, as Meloy asked to be “bathed in red” from stage lights and each member of the band violently banged out drum beats and bawled out “All right!” with Meloy on the chorus.
During “The Chimbley Sweep,” Meloy and guitartist Chris Funk started a short duel of sorts, then Meloy swiftly grabbed a member of the audience to play his guitar, and before long, Funk pulled up another concert goer to play his guitar while Meloy hopped on drums, keyboardist Jenny Conlee played the accordion and bassist Nate Query played an amusing improv set.
The show concluded with a three-song double encore that included the much anticipated shanty “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” during which band members dramatically acted out scenes from the song while they continued to play along and sing with impressive accuracy.
The band saved “June Hymn” for the very last song, which brought back the calming and mellow atmosphere that had started the evening. It was an appropriate ending to a well-executed, energetic and unpredictable show.