The Decemberists bring tunes for pirates who like country music to Oakland

Doug Smith / Staff
Doug Smith/Staff
Doug Smith / Staff

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The Decemberists played at the Fox Theater last Friday with an overwhelming variety of folk songs disguised as synthy alternative music for people who don’t want to admit that they like country music and might be pirates.

The mature crowd of 20-somethings was greeted by an elaborate stage setting as the audience members looked directly into the spiraled, glowing eyes of a desert skull over the towering drum set. A low, monkish chant created a wannabe-Coachella mood to start the show.

Starting with “Dear Avery,” dissonant chords rang throughout the venue to set the eerie, desert-like theme of the concert. The clangs of the guitar were soon met by band members and background vocalists, whose harmonies were angelic against the smooth guitar licks.

This is one of the band’s older songs, and one of the more successful of the night. The Portland-based band released its newest record, I’ll Be Your Girl, in March of this year. The ‘80s-influenced sound is much different from the band’s previous records. The result of this mix of new and old was a choppy performance — the sounds didn’t come together well enough to make a cohesive set.

The members of The Decemberists do their old sound of country pirate folk music significantly better than whatever this new ‘80s synth phase is.

For instance, few things are better than a solid indie accordion player. “Rox In The Box,” from the band’s 2011 album The King Is Dead, showcased eccentric instrumentals. The recorded version sounds much fuller, but the vastness of the venue may have drowned out the intended acoustic effect of this song. Even still, “Rox In The Box” was better than “Severed,” which, even though it is currently the band’s top song on Spotify, sounded cheesy and out of place.

Nothing exudes the “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock” meets “Just Dance 2” vibe more than the song “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga).” This performance felt less like a concert and more like a live-action version of “Guitar Hero.” Lead singer Colin Meloy’s voice carried a certain ‘90s grunge tone that did not fit at all with the raw steel sound of the song.

In the middle of the set, Meloy interjected that this show may have been the first time in 10 years the band’s set hadn’t included a song referencing San Francisco. “I see this is a very controversial thing,” he said in response to the crowd’s mixed reaction of disappointed-meets-relieved.

The band then launched into “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” which gave the band that off-brand Of Monsters and Men sound that the group sometimes seems to be trying a little too hard for, in spite of The Decemberists’ additional years of experience. The two-part harmonies, while beautiful, resembled the likes of the Icelandic band a little too closely — and were executed not as well. The track prompted the falsettos of 30-year-old men all across the room, which was endearing, and slightly off.

It’s not uncommon for bands to take a small break partway through a show. The Decemberists, however, took a 20-minute break — since there was nothing for the crowd to do in the meantime and the break was long, the energy noticeably lowered.

Upon The Decemberists’ return to the stage, the crowd decided to adequately participate for the song “We All Die Young.” Drummer John Moen held a wide grin while singing along to the tune, honing the most energy of the entire night into this performance. This seemed to improve the mood of the audience, and was brightened even further when Meloy chose a fan from the crowd to come onstage and ring what appeared to be a cowbell for the remainder of the song.

Occasionally, the bright, theatrical vocals of the background singers didn’t match the deep tone of Meloy. However, the powerhouse vocals of Kelly Hogan, while coming from the sidelines, were without doubt the highlight of this show. Toward the end of the show, “Down By The Water” gave Hogan a chance to flex her impressive range, expressing the most emotion of the night.

All in all, the abrasive switches between post-disco dance pop and campfire tunes were definitely not for those of good taste. The Decemberists might be better off sticking with what they know — sea shanties for middle-aged hipsters.

Contact Skylar De Paul at [email protected]. Tweet her at @skylardepaul.