The Decemberists’s Colin Meloy lets a lucky fan pluck his six string at the Ryman.
After they cancelled their Indianapolis show the night before due to Colin Meloy’s “trashed” voice, a lot of fans weren’t sure if The Decemberists would take the stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville this past Saturday night. Meloy, the band’s front man, assured worried fans over Twitter that “Nashville’s still on. Thanks to the lovely folks at Vanderbilt Voice Center.” And lovely they must be, because Meloy’s voice sounded as mellifluous as ever, enveloping the crowd through the Ryman’s wondrous acoustics.
Before they took the stage, however, Nashville native Caitlin Rose made her Ryman debut, nervously exclaiming, “Well, this isn’t the Springwater,” before cutting into her first tune. The length of Rose’s skirt made it obvious that she isn’t used to being on a raised stage, but not many people were complaining, especially the guys. Rose’s beauty, however, reaches much farther than her looks, and she let us know this by belting out every note that night. Even though she kept her eyes focused in the top left corner of the auditorium, refusing to make eye contact with the crowd while she sang, it was hard to keep your eyes off of her.
Despite her middle school talent show trepidation, Rose’s performance was spectacular. Her voice was confident and clear as it boomed through the auditorium, while her backing band provided the perfect rocking twang behind her. Rose also brought out a trio of strings to enhance the lush-factor of “For The Rabbits,” and “Own Side Now.” The highlight of Rose’s set came when she had some technical difficulties with her acoustic guitar for her last song, “Sinful Wishing Well.” Instead of waiting for a guitar tech, Rose decided to bypass all amplification and made the most of the auditorium’s famed acoustics, even stepping away from the microphone. Rose’s voice rang strong and lucid throughout the Ryman and provided the perfect ending to a stellar set.
Twenty minutes after Rose left the stage to a standing ovation, The Decemberists came on with a lot to prove if they wanted to dodge an upstaging by their opener. Fortunately, they dressed for the occasion in their finest formal wear and delivered the goods musically as well. The band opened with the acoustic ballad “Oceanside,” from their 5 Songs EP, which they released on their own in 2001. Next came a trio of songs from their most recent album, The King is Dead, followed by their folksy epic tale of woe “The Bagman’s Gambit,” which culminated in a tumultuous soundscape of distorted guitars, oscillating delays and blasting cymbals.
After two more acoustic numbers, Meloy introduced the crowd to Sara Watkins, who is touring with the band in place of multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee, who is back in Portland, OR, battling breast cancer (check out this shirt from the band, all proceeds support Susan G. Komen for the Cure). They then ripped into the heaviest song of the night, “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga),” which Watkins sang as Meloy and guitarist Chris Funk traded riffs.
Colin Meloy was interactive with the crowd throughout the whole show, at first heckling them for sitting down, commenting that the pews must just be that comfortable. When the audience finally stood up, Meloy quipped that it made the band “feel as if we’ve freed the town from the shackles of conservatism.” This type of joking continued throughout — Meloy even called out his son (who is apparently not a big fan of their music), who was seen in the audience with his headphones on: “He’s probably reading Wikipedia on his iPhone. He’s kind of a weird kid.” Meloy took the audience participation to even higher levels when he entered the crowd twice, first to do a two step with a lucky lady, and then again when he let a few fortunate fans take some strums on his six string.
Highlights from the second half of the set included “The Crane Wife 1 & 2,” which is the only song they played from The Crane Wife, the Celtic romp of “Rox In The Box,” and the percussive goliath “The Rake’s Song.” They ended the set with an extended version of “The Chimbley Sweep” that included a verse of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and a guitar duel between Meloy and Funk where they tried to throw each other off by getting more and more atonal with each subsequent lick. The band performed two encores, with the highlight being “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” where each band member laid down on the floor “dead” at some point during the song, and the crowd screamed as though a whale was eating them.
Seeing The Decemberists was a great reminder that there are still bands out there that can release great albums and put on a killer rock show. Their set, plus the encore, clocked in right around two hours, which is a godsend in an indie scene where you’re lucky to break the hour mark when you go see a show. The band was obviously having a great time onstage, which always makes for a great show, no matter who you’re seeing. This combination of great songs, plus the added spark and spontaneity of their live gigs, makes The Decemberists’ show one that should not be missed and they made my first visit to the Ryman Auditorium a memorable one.