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Monday, Feb. 7, 2011

The Decemberists @ The Riverside Theater

Feb. 5, 2011

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The Decemberists are a seasonal band. That's not to say they're suited to only one particular season, but that their songs are rife with divergent climates. It was fitting, then, that their sold-out show Saturday at the Riverside Theater came a few days after a monumental blizzard knocked out our city. "So raise a glass to turnings of the season," Colin Meloy sang somewhat triumphantly on the set's second song, "Don't Carry It All," as hundreds cathartically lifted their cups and cheered. We're not out of winter's woods yet, but we've stood up to its strongest test. Near night's end Meloy quipped, "It's not forever Hoth out there."

It was the geeky frontman, however, who seemed cold throughout the show's first half, which leaned heavily on the Portland, Ore., literary rockers' latest, The King Is Dead, an R.E.M.-tinged folk album. The absence of Meloy’s typical witty banter and engaging stage presence and his aloofness during newer material—"Calamity Song," "Rise to Me" and "Down By the Water"—was surprising since The Decemberists played their previous album, 2009's The Hazards Of Love, start to finish with fiery panache the last time they stopped here.

Whatever anxiety was present, though, melted away when an audience member pleaded with Meloy to sing "Happy Birthday" to a friend. Meloy responded by telling an urban myth about Phil Collins’ "In the Air Tonight." The legend goes that Collins invited the lifeguard he wrote the song about (the one who watched his friend drown) to a concert and shined a stage light on him throughout the song. The man goes home and kills himself. "We don't need another Phil Collins moment," Meloy said to the birthday-song requester. With tremendous laughs and some disapproving looks, The Decemberists moved onto the next song. Afterward, Meloy and his band played an impromptu rendition of "In the Air Tonight." It sounded terrible, but singing along was unabashedly fun nonetheless. Unexpected moments like this helped the night seem fresh, and seemed to loosen up Meloy a little.

Meloy spent the rest of the show goofing around with his band mates and the crowd, jokingly playing the conceited rock star. He snapped pictures of himself from a fan's camera, directed his fellow musicians in interpretive dances that recreated momentous events offstage, bungled some lyrics and even passed around a flask. It was as if Meloy somehow bloomed into a warmer presence. Now, if only Milwaukee could do that already.

Photo by CJ Foeckler
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