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The Decemberists

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on August 3, 2011

Mountain Park, Holyoke, Mass., July 31

Any pop cultural universe in which the Decemberists are rock stars can’t be entirely bad.

The brainy, saltwater rockers with a penchant for songs about suicide pacts and shipwrecks seem to have no business at top of the Billboard Hot 100, where their latest album The King Is Dead landed. Yet the enduring legacy of the early-century indie rock cultural takeover that gave us the soundtrack to The OC (and, eventually, Vampire Weekend) was in full evidence last weekend at the Decemberists’ show at Mountain Park—particularly as embodied by the singalong-level enthusiasm of the mostly college-aged crowd.

The secret to the whole enterprise may be the levity—or, at least, good humor—that lies underneath the stories of blood feuds and forbidden love, all majorly informed by the knotty, bloody tradition of American folk song and its antecedent English-Scottish balladry. Frontman Colin Meloy proved not only quirky but personable and downright funny, developing running jokes and at one point (in the midst of “The Chimbly Sweep”) getting everyone to sit down, for no apparent reason.

The two-hour set was heavily flavored with tracks from The King Is Dead, which seemed as warmly received as catalog cuts like “The Crane Wife 1 and 2.” Throughout, the band exhibited great poise and professionalism, putting the songs out front and leaving little room for instrumental acrobatics. And though Meloy seemed to be genuinely emoting, there was little sign of anyone breaking a sweat.

The Decemberists were playing with a woman down; founding member Jenny Conlee dropped from the tour after discovering she had breast cancer. (This fact was noted from the stage; Meloy’s touch for dark humor was exhibited by the promise that she’ll soon return “with a better collection of headscarves than she ever imagined she’d have.”) Though Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins was along on violin and occasional keyboard accents, the band’s distinctive sound was definitely impaired by the lack of Conlee’s accordion and other assorted flavors. “O Valencia!” was of a less distinctive rock ilk, sounding a bit like Wilco in that band’s less-inspired moments.

Most of the time, though, the band were busy offering fully realized takes on their meaty material. “Rocks in the Box” rocked convincingly, while “When We Both Go Down Together” featured the very solid Nate Query on acoustic bass while Meloy waved his arms in the air as an abstract underline to his story of the fatal lovers’ tale. A highlight was “The Rake’s Song,” for which Watkins and guitarist Chris Funk joined in on percussion, contributing to an ironclad pulse that managed to rock and swing simultaneously.

The band seemed suberbly comfortable, able to keep weaving their tightly conceived epic-scale story-songs late into the night. If anything, the veteran road warriors were a little too comfortable, allowing a purposely underwhelming showdown of mock guitar solos within the set’s last song to devolve into an interminable segment featuring drummer John Moen standing at center stage, improvising a blues while Meloy backed him with a basic beat and occasionally sang bits of the chorus to Christopher Cross’ “Sailing.”

Yes, funny (for a while) and yes, a momentum killer, but it was perhaps these unlikely hitmakers’ ironic alternative to the Big Rock Ending. When familiar encore tune “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” successfully coaxed the crowd to scream as if it were being swallowed by a whale, all was forgiven.