The Belly of the Whale: The Decemberists thrill at the Murat Theatre

An evening of excellent music from the Decemberists at Indy’s Murat Theatre. Also huge balloon whiles with sailor tattoos.

The R.E.M.cemberSmiths, sorry, I mean the Decemberists (God, I’ve been waiting a long time to use that joke) are one of the best indie acts performing today. Though certainly not without their flaws, their performance at the Murat Theatre was one of the greatest I’ve been to in a long time. This comes, of course, with the caveat that I am a longtime fan and would probably have enjoyed the show if I’d had electrodes attached to my sensible bits that shocked me every other note.

My objectivity aside, a fun night at a show is a fun night at a show. And, at the risk of belaboring a point, seeing the Decemberists at the Murat Theatre was certainly that much.

A New Sound

Since the release of their new album I’ll Be Your Girl in March, the Decemberists have been touring in order to promote it. They made, of course, no bones about that but had the dignity to not actually flog their new album to the audience. That said, the first two numbers of their set did come from that album, so it was an indirect flog, I guess? Capitalistic impulses aside, the new songs set a different tone for the show. Namely, one of coming to grips with a world so suddenly and radically changed. There was none of the folkloric revelry of The Crane Wife (2006) or the operatic bombast of Hazards of Love (2009).

Instead, the new material reaches back to the neurotic electronic finger-twiddling of groups like New Order or even Talking Heads. Basically, anxious music for anxious times. I’ll Be Your Girl still has the folk motifs that the Decemberists normally employ, but married to a retro-electronic sound. The track “Severed”, for example, features a harshly pulsing synth that sounds like something from John Carpenter’s nightmares. This all serves to enhance the underlying uncertainty and urgency. Eventually, you just wanted a break.

Old Favorites

Which made it all the more rewarding when Colin Meloy and co. broke out the greatest hits. The crowd roared in ecstasy as the first few notes of “the Rake’s Song” twanged from Meloy’s guitar. I can still hear the audience singing along as the Rake related his tale of creative triple kindercide, with Meloy raising his fingers as each child met their end. And this came just after the soaring, no pun intended, “the Crane Wife 1&2” had just finished vertiginating from the Decemberists overworked fingers. Other highlights included band workhorse Jenny Conlee’s performance as the Queen in “the Queen’s Rebuke” from Hazards of Love. I still remember the way the audience quailed as the song’s heavy, distorted guitar line strode under the Queen’s ominous lyrics before transforming into a squealing metal shred.

A Definite Ending

The crowning glory, however, was the grand finale. They do say to save the best for last, and the Decemberists certainly took that old adage to heart. The last song of the night was “the Mariner’s Revenge Song” from 2005’s Picaresque. An emotional ballad concerning an orphan’s revenge on his cruel stepfather for driving his mother to madness. It has all the elements of a great story: revenge obviously, but also gamblers, sailing ships, priories, muskets, and giant whales!

Colin Meloy decided to have a little audience participation for his final number. Specifically, he instructed us to scream in fear when the characters get swallowed by a giant whale. And scream we did. Because getting swallowed by giant whales is scary and so is Colin Meloy.

And then something happened that I fell the need to narrate in detail.

Finally, as the Mariner took his gruesome vengeance on his captain/stepdad, one of the band members fired on the audience with a confetti cannon. A pretty conventional way to mark the end of a show. But then, a pair of stagehands wearing mechanic’s coveralls came out on stage with twelve-foot whale balloon. This was less conventional. Then the whale began a confetti and streamer cannonade as the spotlights on the stage flared. The navy style tattoos on the whale’s body were just icing on the cake.

Final Thoughts

We’re all a little more anxious these days, but at least we have our little comforts. Music, for example. This is something the Decemberists understand very well, they acknowledge the turmoil, but remember to have fun. Something we could all use a little more of just now.

Keep listening, everybody.


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