An enthusiastic crowd and the energy of the performance more than made up for the lacking setlist.
I’m probably the one person on this planet who got into the Decemberists through Colin Meloy’s one solo album, “Colin Meloy Sings Live!” It’s a romp through the band’s most well-known songs until 2006, sprinkled here and there with deep cuts, like “Bandit Queen” or “Barbara Allen,” from the band’s independent days. It’s a quaint live album with a distinct lack of bells or whistles, just Meloy’s voice accompanied by his own acoustic guitar. Meloy asks the audience to whistle through drum solos and to visualize themselves at a dusky campfire circle somewhere deep in the Colorado mountains. When I think of the Decemberists, I think of this stripped-down to basics, moody sound that’s backed my last two summers.
The band’s most recent album, “I’ll Be Your Girl,” sparked their first tour to come to Tulsa since 2009’s “Hazards of Love,” a rock opera about fawns, abduction and drowning. The three albums the Decemberists have put out since last coming to Tulsa have seen Meloy abandon the band’s early narrative motifs in favor of tighter, more pop-friendly melodies. “I’ll Be Your Girl” is probably the album most divorced from the timeless, acoustic sound that I first identified with Meloy’s music.
As much as I was excited to have the opportunity to see the band live at Cain’s Ballroom, I was equally worried that their setlist would be loaded with new material and lack representation from their earlier work; I know an artist wants to play their new material, and I can’t fault them for that, but I also knew that I probably wouldn’t get all from the concert that I wanted.
Out of the 19-song setlist, four were from the early albums I went to the show for. But I really, really didn’t care. The crowded, cramped atmosphere of live music won me over, and I got over the faux politics of favorite albums and personal attachment to an artist’s own discography. The stage of Cain’s never had no less than six people playing music on it at any given time. The bassist switched through four different basses, including a hulking double bass. There were two incredibly talented female vocalists backing Meloy, one later carrying the entirety of “Won’t Want for Love.” The loving attention to detail paid to every note of every track was self-evident, and it seemed to me that even partially dismissing the concert due to its setlist would be letting personal bias ruin a fantastic live show.
The concert opened with the slow, meditative “California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade,” a 10-minute-long dirge about wine and restlessness. This was a surprising choice for an opening song, but kicking off an otherwise high-energy concert with a mellow, less well-known track was a fun choice, especially considering putting it anywhere else in the setlist would’ve killed the crowd’s energy. The rest of the setlist, including the two encore tracks, went through five songs from the band’s most recent album and, another surprise, four tracks from the less popular “Hazards of Love.”
Meloy played through the band’s most requested live tracks from “their early work was so much better” elitists like me: “O Valencia!,” “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which closed the show with confetti and a huge, plastic blow-up whale thrown into the audience. Between older and newer tracks Meloy played a sweet little snippet of the Kinks’ “Oklahoma, U.S.A,” taking advantage of that hot-and-cold state pride that everyone possesses. It was a setlist that seemed to aim to please all types of fans, and I believe it succeeded.
More than anything, I think the concert worked well because it knew its audience. Having not played Tulsa in nearly a decade, the Decemberists focused on their more recent work as to not repeat too many tracks for fans that saw them in 2009. Was it my ideal concert from the band? No. Did their sheer showmanship and talent sell me on it anyway? Absolutely.