Colin Meloy, frontman of the Decemberists, strode out to the stage on a foggy night in Berkeley, glass of red wine in hand, and surveyed his adoring crowd. Given the raucous reception, one might think that they were at a Led Zeppelin concert, not a group of folky rockers from Portland. Watching Meloy strut to the front of the stage and embrace his rockstar treatment, chin raised and chest puffed up, it hit me. Four years of being an English major was suddenly worth it. I still might not be able to get a job, but at least I had this. Launching straight into the meta-narrative song “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” I could only think – if only I were supremely talented at singing, songwriting, and playing guitar, I could be Colin Meloy!
I go to a lot of rock concerts. I love to see guitar gods blister through impossible solos and lead singers belt out their lyrics at ridiculous range and power. The Decemberists, by contrast, have no interest in such bravado. On this night, Colin Meloy rocked the house with his impressively large vocabulary. Let’s be honest; how many other bands could get the entire crowd bouncing up and down as if on pogo sticks to “Calamity Song,” a song about the apocalypse with the line, “Hetty Green, queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab/Know what I mean?”
Not really, Colin. I have no idea what you mean. Actually, to be honest, in writing this article I had to look up half the words in that one sentence. Of course, here Meloy is referring to the famous temperament of one Hetty Green, stock-broker and Gilded Age “Witch of Wall Street.” Duh. If this isn’t enough for you, check out the music video which retells a scene from David Foster Wallace’s post-modern epic Infinite Jest in which middle school children start a figurative atomic war on a tennis court. Is this the Singer Addressing his Audience or the Professor Addressing the Nobel Committee? That’s the thing about a Decemberists concert. It’s brilliant, but you better bring a dictionary.
Still, Meloy and his band find a way to turn this erudite, musical spelling bee into a rowdy, foot-stomping party. And that’s because he embraces his intellectual side. He does not shy away from directly appealing to his, well, quite nerdy audience. The Decemberists have found their niche and lapped it up for everything it offers. They’ve become King of the Nerds. They’ve tapped into a great subtle truth of the performing arts – it doesn’t really matter how big your sphere of relevance is, it just matters what you do within it. And what the Decemberists do with their bookish, hipster sphere is own it. Just ask any of the reverent fans in the sold out crowd. They may never be the most mainstream but on this night, to be at the Greek, that didn’t matter. It was rewarding enough.
Streaming through a curated collection of old favorites and songs from their new album (to which the audience had already memorized every word) the feeling around the amphitheater was rapturous. I felt like four years of the world’s most famously useless major suddenly had meaning. Perhaps in embracing the headier, academic side of music, the Decemberists have hit on something genius. In the role of the lead singer, Meloy fully explores the relationship between the performer and the spectator, conducting the audience through the songs in complex clapping syncopations and rising and falling sing-alongs like the leader of an orchestra.
The grand culmination of the show was the encore, when a ten foot tall cut-out sperm whale, massive jaw unhinged, ate the entire band in the Melville-esque nerd-epic “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” It was this incredible absurdity that fully sent the audience into a frenzy. And why not– for what is art if not a momentary suspension of disbelief, when thousands of people can gather in one place and listen to one man sing, trusting that it just might be part brilliant and part beautiful? For literary nerds across the Bay, this was our night to embrace the absurd revelry of it all.
Photo credits: Veronica Lee