Few bands have the audacity to encourage their audience to re-enact the final battle of The Hobbit, let alone having an audience willing to participate. The Decemberists pulled it off last November, when they had their Chicago audience swinging swords, shooting bows and flapping their wings at each other without a whim of embarrassment or questioning, as if this were a perfectly normal occasion at live concerts. Though the weapons and fighting were imaginary, none of the grandeur was lost in the imitation.
“We are always looking for new ways to involve the audience and make fun of ourselves,” said Nate Query, bassist for The Decemberists. With their spring tour nearing its halfway point, the Decemberists are back to a five-piece band after parting ways with supporting member Lisa Molinaro, and are playing some of their most exciting shows yet.
Having recently made the jump from independent record label Kill Rockstar to Capitol Records, The Decemberists have had the chance to beef up their tours. As if battle re-enactments weren’t enough, the band now has an official lighting technician to give their live shows that extra flair. The new label has also pushed The Decemberists further into the public eye.
“The label is always willing to help with promotion,” said Query. “We’ve gotten a lot more interviews and in-studio performances at radio stations and things like that.”
While the intimacy of an independent label is missed, the band itself has not changed drastically.
“Being a bassist in The Decemberists isn’t different than it was a year and a half ago. We are still making records and playing shows,” Query commented.
The Decemberists’ recent boost in popularity has also allowed them to bring even more people on tour. My Brightest Diamond, one of their favorite groups, will be opening every show of theirs this spring.
The band first saw My Brightest Diamond perform late last year, after their own show in Chicago. Later, when it came time to decide on a supporting act, The Decemberists didn’t need to look very far.
“Usually, it’s hard to choose an opening act. It becomes a matter of ‘can they do it?,’ or ‘do they want to do it?,'” remarked Query. “With My Brightest Diamond, we got really lucky because everything just worked out.”
On the past two albums, Picaresque and The Crane Wife, and their accompanying tours, The Decemberists have usually employed the help of an extra musician to aid with backup vocals, and any other instrumentation needed to fill out their sound. On their last tour, Lisa Molinaro, member of the duo Talkdemonic, helped the band on vocals, xylophone and violin, and which spurred the consideration of adding a new Decemberist.
“We thought about it when we were playing with Lisa, but there is still something exciting about the five of us playing together,” said Query.
After having parted with ways with previous supporting members Lisa Molinaro and Petra Haden, the band is back to a five-piece lineup for the first time in over two years. As a result, they have been able to become more spontaneous on stage and can create more variation within their set lists. With fan message boards overflowing with requests and “dream set lists,” one can only wonder if those posts are read or fall upon deaf ears.
“We read the message boards. It’s really interesting to read people’s reactions,” admitted Query. “We’ve gotten really good at writing set lists that flow. The other night we played ‘The Tain,’ ‘The Crane Wife 1’ through ‘The Crane Wife 3’ and ‘The Island,’ and that was like, an hour of music right there. After [lead singer Colin Meloy] wrote the set list we all looked at each other and just thought, ‘Wow … this is going to light up the message boards.'”
Songs such as “The Tain” and “Mariner’s Revenge Song” are fan favorites due to their flowing transitions and engaging stories. Sometimes based on traditional folklore, these musical tales are becoming increasingly popular with fans.
“The epic songs are something that is really interesting to explore, but it is not a direction we are going at the expense of another,” Query explained. “They have always been there, and are really fun, but we aren’t going to stop writing short pop songs.”
Along with such engaging and historical songs come many chances for audience participation. Although it is not a staple of every show, mass audience participation does occur, and it’s more than just singing along. Often during “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” the audience is encouraged to play the part of the doomed sailors as they are eaten at the will of a giant whale. In some cases, the re-enactments can be more unique.
“Sometimes Colin does a little research to make those situations more location specific. Like, the other night, we did the Battle of Gettysburg when we were in Virginia,” said Query.
While The Decemberists’ show at Foellinger Auditorium this Sunday may not feature references to classic fantasy books or re-enactments of Civil War battles, it will definitely include a vast array of musical instruments and some of the most imaginative lyrics ever written for pop songs. With the chance of getting eaten alive by a giant whale, it will definitely be a show to remember.
Don’t miss The Decemberists with opening act My Brightest Diamond at Foellinger Auditorium this Sunday, April 15. Tickets are $19 for students and $24 for the general public, and doors open at 6:30 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. concert.