Home > Uncategorized > This is how I am repaid: The Decemberists/Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, 2009.06.06

This is how I am repaid: The Decemberists/Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, 2009.06.06

The Decemberists/Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3
Tower Theater
Philadelphia, PA

I never wrote about it on this site (mostly because, let’s face it, I was pretty much ignoring this site until just a couple of weeks ago), but the new album from the Decemberists, The Hazards of Love, has ranked highly on my list of the biggest musical disappointments of the year. I was excited for the album, and was prepared to fall head-over-heels in love with it; really, I was. I wanted to memorize every word and to dutifully listen to the entire saga at least once a week. I wanted this to be the album that fulfilled the widescreen ambition of “The Tain.” Instead, I found the album to be tedious, dull, confusing, unmemorable, and, ultimately, underwhelming in spite of its by-design overwhelmingness. Of course, by the time the album came out and I had gotten the chance to bask in its apparent mediocrity, I had already had the tickets for this show for a month. Although I was at first excited at the prospect of seeing the band perform what should have been its magnum opus in its entirety, I swiftly began to regret purchasing tickets for the show, especially as both Art Brut and the Roots Picnic were announced for the same date.

Flash forward to this past Saturday. After a quick dinner at Pico de Gallo and a madcap, Paperboy-inspired rush through the city, Jenn and I entered the Tower Theater and found our seats. I was excited that Robyn Hitchcock was opening the show; in fact, I was perhaps more excited to see Hitchcock than I was for the main act at this point. It must be said that I have not purchased a Robyn Hitchcock album since 1999’s Jewels for Sophia, so going into this show I assumed I would be unfamiliar with most of the material. I also was unfamiliar with the makeup of his backing band, the Venus 3. I had been aware that he had been doing some work lately with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, as well as Young Fresh Fellows/the Minus 5 main man and touring R.E.M. member Scott McCaughey. What I was not aware of was that the Venus 3 was basically a stripped-down version of R.E.M. – I was shocked to see Peter Buck stroll out onto a smaller stage than I could ever reasonably hope to see R.E.M. play, along with Scott McCaughey and touring R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin.

The entire band was in fantastic form, and I had forgotten in the nine years since I had last seen him live just how devastatingly funny Hitchcock was in concert – the absurdity of his ramblings left one simultaneously rolling with laughter and scratching one’s head looking for comprehension. (“Well, it is June, which means that Halloween is in October this year, and this is a wonderful time to be in Philadelphia, because Halloween is coming up soon. Get ready to carve your pumpkins!”) A series of increasingly tiny tour companions/mascots being introduced (a penguin, an alligator, and a cone) presented other moments of surreal, absurd humor that seemed to confuse just as many people as they tickled.

I do not mean, however, to imply that the banter stole the show from the music. Far from it – Hitchock’s music came off as vital and energetic. Opener “I Often Dream of Trains” pleased the fair number of already-familiar fans in the audience before Hitchcock and company veered into a set comprised mostly of ear-pleasing recent material. The Byrdsian jangle of “I’m Falling” was a particular highlight to me, as well as the obvious-but-still-funny ode to media anaesthetization “Television,” Rachel Getting Married centerpiece song “Up to our Nex,” and the twenty-year-old “Queen of Wasps,” which was the only other older song played by the band. Buck’s jangly guitar style was a perfect match for Hitchcock’s whimsical songwriting style, and the newer songs played were good enough that I felt not a twinge of hesitation as I purchased a copy of the most recent album, Goodnight Oslo, and had it signed by both Hitchcock and Buck.

There is no way to build up to this effectively, so let me just cut to the chase and spoil it for you now: the Decemberists rocked it, and they managed to acquit themselves admirably and prove me wrong about The Hazards of Love. Perhaps it was the added effect of seeing the band make the transition from song to song expertly and professionally, perhaps it was the stage presence of Colin Meloy and Shara Worden, perhaps it was the chemistry that I must stubbornly admit that Mr. Meloy and Becky Stark had, or perhaps it was the fact that, as a captive audience being presented with the material at loud volume, I actually listened fully for the first time. Whatever the reason was, the fact is that the album clicked for me for the first time. Where its 60 minutes had previously seemed to drag on for multiple hours, here it flew by and left me wanting more. Where the whole piece had seemed to blend into some bloated, ultimately insignificant blur of disconnected sounds with no real songs distinguishable from the whole apart from obvious single “The Rake’s Song,” here the individual songs took shape and individual identities.

The puzzling thing about this is the fact that there was, to my ears, no difference between the studio version of the album and the live version. The Decemberists at this point are an accomplished and professional enough band to pull off a suite such as this and play it exactly as it is on record – I caught no mistakes, no timing changes, no flubbed lines or bum notes or missed drum beats. It was all perfect. Added to that is the pristine sound of the Tower – even from practically the extreme right wall of the room, there was no echo. The live mix perfectly balanced all the elements, so nobody overpowered and nobody got drowned out. The band took the stage without addressing the audience at all, and did not stop playing, speak to the crowd, or in any other way break character throughout the first set. It was a performance in the truest sense of the word.

And what a performance it was! Mr. Meloy rocked out at several times, taking obvious delight in some of the unexpectedly sludgy riffs that pepper the suite. Ms. Stark, playing the role of Margaret, had the biggest hurdle to clear; I had seen her band, Lavender Diamond, open for the Decemberists a couple of years ago, and I was none too impressed by the band and was particularly not a fan of Ms. Stark. At that show, she seemed to be conveying an image of purity, innocence, and a vaguely hippie-ish sense of idealism that felt disingenuous. Even worse, her singing voice seemed blandly unimpressive and she had no physical stage presence. I was disappointed when I had learned she would be playing a prominent role on this album. Live, however, she displayed at least an improvement in her stage presence; her first entrance as Margaret, dressed in a white bridal gown, saw her executing a provocatively sensual, undulating shimmy up to the mic, swaying in time to the rhythm established by the band, injecting a brazen and unexpected sense of sexuality into the character and the scene. While her voice still left much to be desired, it was obvious that her touring with Lavender Diamond had allowed her to grow as a vocalist.

She was completely out-awesomed on every level, however, by Ms. Shara Worden, playing the queen. In her little black dress, Ms. Worden vamped, stomped, and generally took control of the stage during her too-few appearances in the storyline. While Jenn seemed to think that Ms. Worden’s overacting was unnecessary, I respectfully disagree; to me, the queen is the kind of character that was written to be a scene- and show-stealer, and the only way to effectively play such a character is to camp it up. And camp it up she did – Worden’s larger-than-life performance on “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” definitely stole the show away from Meloy and elicited what sounded to me like the largest applause of any moment during the Hazards set, besides perhaps “The Rake’s Song,” which was performed by Mr. Meloy on acoustic guitar and vocals, Nate Query on electric bass, and the other five on-stage members all (!) playing drums in unison.

Of course, after playing Hazards and taking a well-deserved 15-minute break, the band were back, sans costumes, to play an abbreviated set of shorter, more self-contained, and less thematically and narratively-loaded songs.  After all the restraint he displayed during the main set, Mr. Meloy here perhaps went overboard on the banter, proclaiming himself a charter member of MACOF (Musicians Against the Calling Out of Freebird) and, in one head-scratching moment, declared that the chord change in “Dracula’s Daughter” is “douchey.” (Really, Colin? With the vocabulary you display in your songs, you choose to go there?) The music, however, was top notch, and was a great plate-cleanser after the intensity of the live Hazards experience.

The highlights here undoubtedly were saved for the climactic final two songs of the set – “The Chimbley Sweep,” which saw Mr. Meloy and Chris Funk hand off their guitars to audience members and run into the audience, shaking hands and high-fiving; and a ripping, energetic cover of Heart’s “Crazy on You,” with Ms. Worden and Ms. Stark trading off lines and verses, and Ms. Stark once again coming out of the deal overshadowed. It was an epically huge performance and was executed – imagine this – without an ounce of irony detectable. The encore stated off slowly with a performance of the rather meh Picaresque outtake “The Bandit Queen,” but improved exponentially with a singalong performance of “Sons & Daughters.”

Although I walked in to the theater convinced I was going to have a terrible time at this show, the Decemberists managed to prove me wrong, and I was humbled by the technical precision of their show, as well as by the care that went in to the visual presentation of the concert (the backdrop may have looked like nothing at first, but it really became quite a striking element of the performance). While I had started to doubt the greatness of the band, I am impressed that they managed to follow up a record that got my vote for biggest disappointment of the year with the most unexpected success of the year.

Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3 setlist:

I Often Dream of Trains
What You Is
Saturday Groovers
Madonna of the Wasps
I’m Falling
Up to Our Nex
Creeped Out
The Authority Box
Goodnight Oslo

The Decemberists setlist:

The Hazards of Love (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)
The Crane Wife 3
July, July!
Dracula’s Daughter
O Valencia!
The Chimbley Sweep
Crazy on You
The Bandit Queen
Sons & Daughters

Complete set of photos from the show, as usual, can be viewed at Flickr.

Categories: Uncategorized
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