Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Decemberists: Radio City Music Hall

Wandering minstrels were something I often fantasized about as a small child. I would picture strangely dressed paupers from faraway lands, gypsy thieves their only true companions with guitar or lute in hand singing tales of triumph, love, and woe to the great pleasure of the surrounding crowd. They would have seen the world and all of its treasures. They were the accessible version of the wise man and prophets. I always pictured they would possess some exotic and unexpected beauty or handsomeness about them that would lure me into their world, and I would sneak away into the night to join them in their musical crusades. Some kids dreamed about running away to join the circus, I dreamed of running away with musicians.

Not much has changed. I still dream of running off with that band of exotic minstrels- maybe they could teach me how to carry a tune or play the tambourine. We could travel all day and play our music all night, always weaving a fine tapestry of sound to the great pleasure of the souls around us. Problem is, we no longer have minstrels. Like all the great things that have come to pass, the traveling troupe of singer poets spinning tales of fancy have gone the way of the dodo. So, quite recently, I had reluctantly abandoned the dream of the minstrel, and resigned to my life of the office job. Sure, I get out and go to concerts, but there's no intimate fairytale to follow in much of today's modern music. There's nothing to interpret, no cautionary tales of love and hate to be heard today.

That is, until I purchased "The Hazards of Love" by the Decemberists a few months ago. Lead singer Colin Maloy described this album as a "Folk Opera", and boy, he wasn't kidding. We are first introduced to Margaret (sung by Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond), who stumbles across a wounded white faun in an enchanted forest, when she attempts to help the faun; he changes into a beautiful man, William (sung by Colin Maloy). They fall in love instantly, and have sex right there on the forest floor. Margaret departs and returns to her village, and it is soon found out that she is with child. She decides to return to the forest to find William. The story grows more twisted and complicated from there. We meet a demented, jealous, and possessive witchwho is Queen of the Forest and also happens to be the adoptive mother of William (sung by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond), as well as the loathsome Rake- a foul sex-crazed child murdering man.

It's definitely one of my favorite albums of the year. I hoped to God they would play NYC & I would get the chance to hear some of this enchanting minstrel inspired music. I got my wish, and then some! When it was announced that the Decemberists were playing Radio City Music Hall I was overjoyed. Then, I received an extra tidbit of information that catapulted me into frenzied elation. The Decemberists were to play ALL of "The Hazards of Love" as it was intended to be played- from start to finish and in its

The night of the show arrived. My comrade Kristin (she's who introduced me to the Decemberists- and is certainly a fellow "run off with the gypsies" enthusiast) and I got into Radio City Music Hall shortly after the opening act had finished. I normally HATE doing this, but, uhh, I like eating and drinking usually WAY more than the opening acts. We filed our way into one of the prettiest old theaters in NYC and found our seats. The show began promptly and I knew from the first note- that this show would be a legend in the making. The set was simple, the musicians very casually dressed, their instruments acting as the perfect props. There is something magical about Radio City Music Hall. Maybe it's the velvet seats, or the classic d├ęcor, who knows, but something about that theatre makes you feel like you are a witness to something great. It doesn't even matter where your seats are, I felt like, although I was one of the thousands in the audience, that I was somehow part of the show and its ambiance. As the show progressed and all I could think was, "I found my modern minstrels! Now, how do I sneak away and become a member?" as the sound of their folksy fairytale carried beautifully and filled the theater, even the lighting had a mesmerizing effect.

There was much of the evening that I shall carry with me, always. The performance of the singers, and the harpsichordist stands out to me as the most awe-inspiring occurrences. Shara Worden in particular blew my mind away. Her work as head siren for her outfit My Brightest Diamond has been turning my head for a while now, but seeing and hearing Shara's banshee wail has confirmed that she is one of the most powerful yet underappreciated female vocalists of our generation. Her role as the wicked forest Queen went unparalleled by her peers. Not only did her voice deliver the message of the psychotic dark forest queen, her movement appeared as though she were possessed by demons! She shook and threw her tiny frame about as if she had no power to control herself. She was fiery and uninhibited much like I imagine the Queen would be, and I envy her for it. Margaret as played by Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond was the perfect contrast to the nature of Shara. She was ethereal and lovely, both in appearance and voice. The Decemberists made impeccable choices in the casting of these women- thus only confirming their own genius. The full set was Broadway worthy, and the musicians comprising the Decemberists are nothing short of incredible.

As if "The Hazards of Love" in its entirety wasn't enough, they came back to the stage after a brief intermission and did a full second set of their more classic songs! I believe in the minstrel again, and I've the Decemberists to thank for this. If you haven't seen them perform live I suggest you do so, and as soon as possible. Never will your thirst for story telling and enchanting music be more quenched!

Setlist 1:
The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)
A Bower Scene
Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)
The Queen's Approach
Isn't It a Lovely Night?
The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid
An Interlude
The Rake's Song
The Abduction of Margaret
The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing
Annan Water
Margaret in Captivity
The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)
The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)
The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)

Setlist 2:
Crane Wife 3
July! July!
Billy Liar
Sleepless (from Dark Was the Night)
The Bachelor and the Bride
Part of Daughter of Dracula-- Maloy introduced this song by noting that most artists choose to perform their best material at Radio City. He was going to break with that tradition by playing the worst song he ever wrote. "I started it with a G major 7 and then, what's worse is that I went to a C major 7. In layman's terms the douchiest of douchey chord progressions."
O Valencia!
The Chimbley Sweep
Heart's Crazy on You-- Arguably one of the BEST things I've ever seen
performed live- Stark and Warden returned to perform it, and it BLEW ME

Then, for the Encore:
REM's Peter Buck joined the band for the first song of the encore, which was an R.E.M. Song that goes by the name of "Begin the Begin"
Sons and Daughters

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