Kings of the Keller: The Decemberists Bring it Home

Back from an international tour, Portland’s resident rockers return home for a sold-out, kick-ass performance.

By Cervante Pope March 23, 2015

Photo credit: Autumn De Wilde

After a solid performance from opening band the Minus 5, the Keller Auditorium falls pitch black. Horns begin blaring as one spotlight shines down on the center of the stage. Singer Colin Meloy slinks his way into the light and grabs hold of his guitar. The audience goes from buzzing to berserk and he battles the roaring crowd attempting to get through an acoustic version of “The Singer Addresses His Audience”.  Slowly the other band members—Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, Chris Funk and John Moen—take to the stage. Portland goes nuts. The resident royalty of this town’s music scene, The Decemberists, are back.

The show, which took place on Saturday, March 21, marked the 10-year anniversary of their highly-acclaimed album Picaresque. In celebration, Saturday’s setlist leaned heavily on that album, along with the recently released What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Decked out and dapper in head-to-toe suits (and a sleek, black dress for Jenny), the band popped against the colorful Carson Ellis designed album art behind them, and they rocked it.

Along the way, Meloy plucked the audience’s heartstrings like a guitar with a snippet of an adorable song he wrote to get his son to eat his food—“Hank, eat your oatmeal! Hank eat your Naan bread!”—before transitioning into “Calamity Song.” They powered through Picaresque hits “The Engine Driver” and “On the Bus Mall,” as well as “The Wrong Year” and “Make You Better” from their latest album, but it wasn’t until the full jam session of staggering, heavy guitars riffs that lead into “The Island” that The Decemberists really showed off their musical diversity.

With a surprise trip back to their 2003 album Her Majesty, along came “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” with ethereal support from the female vocalists. Those lilting ladies carried the rest of the band through “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga),” but it was "The Rake’s Song,” “The Sporting Life” and “16 Military Wives” that had every seat in the Keller empty as the dancing in the aisles began. The party continued through the last song of the set, “O Valencia!”

An encore was inevitable, and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” a sea shanty about being devoured by a whale from Picaresque, closed out the night as the perfect audience-participation pleaser. Given the Keller’s sound ordinance, the 11 pm deadline for the show finish was immutable. The solution? Speed up your last number. The up-tempo result contributed to some onstage antics, with guitarist Funk taking to the stage in a giant whale costume, pretending to eat the other members of the band. By the end, Meloy and Query (on fiddle) were going toe-for-toe in Russian style high leg kicks as they played out the song. 

Though the sound at the Keller at times got the better of Meloy’s vocals, the audience still left in a state of wonderment and worship.

The Decemberists had claimed all the way back in their opening number “The Singer Addresses his Audience” that they belong to us, but as they made clear on Saturday night as the star-struck crowd poured out of the venue, we—the audience, fans, Portlanders in general—belong to them. 

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