Fresh off the release of their strongest album, The King Is Dead, The Decemberists kicked off their new tour last night at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan.
They played with as little affect as their new album of straightforward, homespun roots rock, plunging in with “Down By The Water.” Much has been made of the way, following their folk-rock opera The Hazards of Love, the band has simplified, even countrified their sound, and it’s true. Trading nods to The Smiths for declared reverence to R.E.M. is a big step forward, especially for a product of Portlandia.
Too many bands with a decade’s work behind them will rush through their new album to get to the old stuff, which is guaranteed to please the crowd. But by sprinkling much of The King Is Dead across the span of a 90-minute set, The Decemberists invited comparisons of the new songs to the old, and showed how strong the new ones are. “Rise To Me” was a highlight of the concert, as much as it is the highlight of the new album, and while the Gram Parson/Whiskeytown pedal steel orchestration isn’t new — it’s as time tested as an old growth forest in the Columbia River basin — the simple reach for beauty shows a songwriter with a lot less to prove, comfortable in his own skin.
The Decemberists are a good band, bordering on a great band. So good, we did not miss Gillian Welch, whose vocals so gloriously mix with Meloy’s great voice on The King Is Dead; for the tour, the band has added a multitalented woman (did not catch name — readers pitch in here…) who plays fiddle, guitar and sings clear and true. What we got was a band that has worked its way through an ambitious youth and for the moment at least, has found sustenance in the traditions of its own country (not the folk rock imported from the Fairport Conventions of Old Europe), a band that serves up tasty helpings of artisanal nourishment, wholesome, healthy and fresh.
This tour is one to catch.
(All photos Leica X1, cropped.)