The Decemberists, Shovels & Rope
Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Last Wednesday night, Chris Funk, a guitarist for The Decemberists, stood on an onstage monitor with his arms spread wide and slightly bent. He slowly undulated from his fingertips back through his chest. Everyone screamed.
Funk was imitating Raleigh’s Shimmer Wall—or “that shiny corporate tree” as band leader Colin Meloy called it. This was the signal for everyone to yell as though they were being eaten alive by a giant sperm whale. In short order, and in a storm of confetti, a giant whale puppet massacred the band.
Funk’s motion was more than just a cue: It was a small, personal addition to the theatrics of their finale, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” It was a sign that The Decemberists, despite acting out this play hundreds of times before, are still present and responding to their audience. It showed that, while their records have become more polished and straightforward, they haven’t let their live show sit still.
Meloy opened the show solo with “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” and the rest of the band slowly joined. The What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World opener works as intended: a recognition of fans’ feelings and an invitation for the audience not to put the band on a pedestal.
Delivering select bits of personal history and some playful ribbing, Meloy is adept at pulling the audience in close. Before “Calamity Song”, he played an early version with lyrics meant to get his then four-year-old son to eat breakfast. Later, he apologized for bringing Portland’s drizzly weather to the South but also told the audience not to congratulate themselves for standing outside in it—the rain was too light for complaints. And at the end of “16 Military Wives,” The Decemberists leader pulled the audience into a call-and-response, teasing those who came in too early or weren’t loud enough. When the encore arrived, the entire amphitheater swayed along to the sea shanty, even celebrating when it became clear that the whale had spared the band.
Such connections between act and audience were bolstered by strong performances throughout the night, particularly those of backing singer Kelly Hogan and opening act Shovels & Rope. Acting as a background vocalist and one of the best singers in all of indie rock regardless of her role, Hogan took the lead on “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga).” With thundering beats and blues licks, the song might be as heavy as The Decemberists get. Still, Hogan’s powerful vocals overshadowed the rest of the band.
Powerful vocals delivered the highlight of Shovels & Rope’s set, too. Though dwarfed by The Decemberists’ gear, which looked like some cartoon mountain landscape, the Charleston duo of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent sacrificed clarity of sound for sheer volume. It worked. The guitar tore through the open space, and their voices pushed to new limits. When Hearst sang “I want you to know what you’re walking away from” on “Bridge On Fire,” I was certain the subject could hear it, no matter the distance. Trent, meanwhile, trembled with energy. During the last two songs, he kicked his mic aside and leaned into Hearst, their faces close enough to touch. In this moment, I was no longer wet and 100 feet away—I was right there with them.
Shovels & Rope have few gimmicks while The Decemberists have many, but neither seemed right or wrong Wednesday. Whether you’ve got a paper whale coming to eat you at the end of your set or not, the unifying principle seemed to be simple: Have fun, and sing to the gathered.