The Decemberists may also represent a band out of time in a city that has hopelessly changed in the past few years.
Many of us who have lived in Portland long enough have a Decemberists story. Whether it’s playing a board game created by the band with the musicians themselves or having Colin Meloy step on your foot at a Pogues concert, the Decemberists have been a local institution since Castaways and Cutouts bowed on Kill Rock Stars in 2002. Known for their R.E.M.-inspired jangle pop and hyper-literate lyrics, the Decemberists may also represent a band out of time in a city that has hopelessly changed in the past few years.
Without sounding too much like the sky is falling, Portland has become a developer’s wet dream lately. Every old house they can buy, every empty space they can wrest away, is now the site of a multi-purpose building or new duplexes. Real estate and rent prices are through the roof. The artists that used to want to keep Portland weird are packing their bags and looking for new cities where they can survive. Yuppies now stroll the streets sipping kombucha and munching on artisanal ice cream, oblivious to the prior local businesses that have been shuttered as the city transforms into something that feels more Californian.
The Decemberists have played Edgefield, a former poor house outside the city turned into a hotel/bar/restaurant/playground for adults, numerous times in the past. The band, promoting new album I’ll Be Your Girl, hasn’t changed all that much. Yes, middle age has maybe watered-down the adventurous songwriting a bit, but the Decemberists may be one of the remaining links we have to what Portland songwriting used to be.
The 90-minute, 17-song setlist concentrated heavily on new material with a smattering of chestnuts thrown in. The band switches up the setlist nightly and Meloy took the stage to deliver a solo version of “Red Right Ankle” to start the show, prompting a sing-along from the sold-out crowd. The rest of the band soon joined him for a spunky take on “The Sporting Life” where Meloy even tossed in a few lyrical snippets of “This Charming Man” for good measure.
At this point, the Decemberists have locked themselves into a good thing while on stage. Guitarist Chris Funk stands impassive at Meloy’s side, sometimes breaking into a killer solo. Keyboardist/accordionist Jenny Conlee wore a cape and looked like a superhero. As the setlist careened between new songs such as “Cutting Stone,” old gems like “Grace Cathedral Hill” and hits such as “O Valencia!”, the beautiful Oregon early-summer evening embracing us, I felt like I was standing on a bridge between old and new Portland. The Decemberists and their music have soundtracked the past 16 years of what it means to live here. And though there are people in Portland who dislike the band, two sold-out nights means a lot.
Meloy appeared to be suffering from throat issues and cut a song or two from the setlist. Yet, he still managed to make it through a nearly 10-minute version of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” during the encore. Though the Decemberists often play this song live, the totally prog breakdown in the middle separated this version from past iterations. As the song came to an end, a group of children (presumably belonging to the band) took the stage and danced. If this new generation of Portlanders are Decemberists fans, perhaps everything is going to be okay and someday we can get back to the values that drew many of us here in the first place.