The Decemberists at Mesa Arts Center With Video, 8/11/11

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The Decemberists
Mesa Arts Center
Thursday, August 11

I guess I had The Decemberists pegged wrong. Here's this insanely popular indie-folk-Americana blended outfit with heavily starched clothing that comes from (where else?) Portland, Oregon. Yes, lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy has a beard. Yes, they're touring with a female musician with an angelic voice. I'd be lying if I said they didn't break out a lap steel at some point. If you were to close your eyes and imagine the most stereotypical indie band, The Decemberists would most certainly be it.

Except not really. Sure, those preconceptions still apply, but the crisp-clothed Meloy is far from the stiff he appears to be in photos. I've heard myths of Decemberists shows being a legitimate good time, but I always wondered how exactly that came to fruition. 

As charming as it was, the opening of the show was almost too perfect for the northwestern five piece. The voice of Sam Adams, the charismatic mayor of Portland, Oregon, chimed in a recorded voice over, asking them to imagine a serene forest filled with trees and raging rivers. It was all very Portlandia.  

He's an interesting character, this Meloy. He's essentially a professional fancy man. Dressed in a perfectly tailored Irish-inspired gray suit, with a glass of red wine to accessorize, Meloy's vocabulary is expansive, as he likes to show off in his lyrics and his conversational crowd interludes. 

I have a love-hate relationship with Mesa Arts Center. It's a beautiful place and a perfect concert spot, but the cushy, jam-packed seats aren't exactly conducive to making you feel like you're a wild animal at a rock concert. Meloy remarked on the quiet crowd vibe from the beginning; how the seats just must be so comfortable. 

The quiet vibe matched the song selection initially. They broke onto the stage with a pretty rendition of "Oceanside," with opener Sara Watkins filling in for multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee, who's taking some time to recover from a battle with breast cancer. Sadly, Watkins doesn't play accordion, so some of the tracks were missing depth. 

Oh, remember that thing I said about this being a "rock" concert? I wasn't kidding. Eight songs in they broke out "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)" off the harder-edged The Hazards of Love. The crowd finally broke from their comfy chair prisons and got on their feet. It was impossible not to. The dirty, bluesy track is totally incongruent with the rest of their music, but no one was complaining. Watkins' voice is a perfect fit for the song. It's smooth, angelic and cracks in the right place. Guitarist Chris Funk pulled a Hendrix as teeth gnashed on guitar strings, and drummer John Moen broke it all down with a metal-esque finish. 

After that, there was no turning back. The vibe at Ikeda Theatre changed dramatically, and so did the band. It just goes to show how the flow of energy between the audience and band is so important for both parties to have a good time. 

Though it had been years since The Decemberists last made a stop in Phoenix, they wanted to make clear that it wasn't for the whole SB 1070 hubbub, remarking on the Sound Strike that followed. 

"I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard in my life," Meloy told the crowd, which was now putty in his hands. "In my opinion, it's all the more reason to come play."

The encored "The Mariner's Revenge," a Decemberists classic epic, was the highlight of the night. When Funk gave the signal of a whale's jaw swallowing a human, the crowd was instructed to let out a chain of screams, sighs and moans, as seen in the video above. 

A second encore lead to a night cap version of The King is Dead's mild mannered summer ode "June Hymn." 

I think, for once, the crowd at Mesa Arts Center actually convinced a band to come back and play for the "freed Mesans," as Meloy put it. And you couldn't ask for a better band to break our stream of bad luck. 

The Decemberists set list: 

Down by the Water
Calamity Song
January Hymn
The Soldiering Life
We Both Go Down Together
The Engine Driver
Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
The Rake's Song
All Arise
Rox in the Box
Dracula's Daughter
O Valencia!
This is Why We Fight
Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye (Leonard Cohen cover)
The Mariner's Revenge
June Hymn

Last night: The Decemberists at Mesa Arts Center.

Personal bias: I've always been a Decemberists fan girl waiting to fully realize her love. I think this show did it. 

The crowd: News radio listeners, young people who think PBR is so over

Overheard in the crowd: "Go guuuurl!" following a Sara Watkins solo. 

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