The Decemberists delight diehard fans at the Orpheum Theatre

The Decemberists with Olivia Chaney @ the Orpheum Theatre 8/8/17

Photo courtesy of Stereogum
Photo courtesy of Stereogum

Portland indie-folk-rockers the Decemberists kicked off a week-and-a-half-long mini-tour with a special show at the Orpheum Theatre last Tuesday. Not only did they delight diehard fans with live rarities, opener Olivia Chaney joined the band to perform songs from their collaborative album of English, Irish, and Scottish folk music, The Queen of Hearts, which they released in July under the name Offa Rex.

The Florence-born, Oxford-raised Chaney spoke in a nearly indiscernible whisper, but when she sang, her voice eclipsed every sound in the room except her harmonium, guitar, and keyboard between which she alternated. For only 30 minutes, she unspooled what she referred to as “European melancholy” – mostly folk songs from her debut solo album The Longest River including “Waxwing”, “Imperfections”, and “Swimming in the Longest River”.

With up to seven members onstage at once, the Decemberists were far more dynamic than the solo Chaney. Of course, the band played obvious choices. The onset of John Moen’s quaking drums on set opener “The Crane Wife 3” was enough to elicit huge cheers. In keeping with The Crane Wife’s sequencing, prog monolith “The Island: Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel the Drowning” followed; the crowd’s bursts of applause were as plentiful as the instrument-changes during the song. Other favourites came later in the night including singles “Calamity Song” and “O Valencia”.

Fans who’d attended several Decemberists shows in Vancouver could be heard gushing over songs they’d never seen the band perform live before including “Los Angeles, I’m Yours”, campfire number/Picaresque B-side “The Bandit Queen”, and the entirety of The Tain EP. After another string of songs those fans likely haven’t heard live – “Lake Song”, “Make You Better”, and “The Wrong Year”, all from the Decemberists’ latest album, 2015’s What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World – frontperson Colin Meloy announced: “So a new band is going to take the stage right now.” Chaney reappeared, and just like that, the band and their guest subtly morphed into Offa Rex. Meloy led vocals as Chaney harmonized and played harmonium on “Blackleg Miner”, an anti-strike-breaking song from North England. The two singers switched roles for the subsequent song.

Throughout the night, the Decemberists demonstrated their range. “We’d like to do a state-of-the-union address,” Meloy said before proceeding with the deceptively cheery sounding “Everything is Awful”. He urged the crowd along as they joined in the “lalala”s: “Sing a little louder!… Awful. A little hutzpah, please!” At other points, the Decemberists reminded everyone that in addition to their dense lyricism, clean song structures, and land & sea folkiness, they have bloody chops too. The sludgy trudge of gnarled rocker “The Abduction of Margaret” was possibly their heaviest cut outside of The Tain, its crescendo smacking like a slab of dripping meat slapped upon a butcher’s table.

Later, the band was sentimental. “We got the news that Glen Campbell died today,” Meloy’s first words went upon returning to the stage for their first encore. “So we’re gonna do this song in honor.” They performed the country legend’s 1968 gold hit “Wichita Lineman” before unleashing “The Tain” and finally ending with “Dear Avery”.

Whether one saw the Decemberists for the first time last Tuesday or has been seeing them since they frequented the long-shuttered Richards on Richards (a time Meloy fondly recalled), the Decemberists left little, if anything, to complain about. For such a tenured band to keep their set list varied enough to surprise even their diehard fans is impressive and even admirable – and a sure reason to keep catching them any time they come to town.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu