By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
What you thought of Wednesday night’s concert by the Decemberists at the Uptown Theater is largely based on your opinion of the band’s latest release, “The Hazards of Love.”
The Portland-based lit-rockers played the album in its entirety during the first set of their 2-hour, 15-minute set. That meant fans who weren’t familiar with the record (or just wanted the old stuff) had to wait over an hour before the band gave them the goods.“The Hazards of Love” isn’t a standard catalog entry. It’s a full-on concept album that nearly buckles under its own weight. The story involves a woman in love with a changeling who lives in the forest and gets kidnapped by a jealous queen. Somehow an angry rake is also involved.
And while the Decemberists had hints of progressive rock in their music before, they have now embraced it completely. “Hazards” isn’t too far from the being the indie equivalent of “Tales of Topgraphic Oceans.” In other words, the evening needed a huge caveat before the first note was played.
But what a note it was. Organist Jenny Conlee took the stage alone pumping huge cords out of her B3 organ as her bandmates slowly joined her. The music shifted from acoustic numbers to heavy blues-based Black Sabbath riffs, country and canticles as different themes and characters were introduced.
To help with their production, the quintet enlisted Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond to play the beau and queen. Both artists were committed to their roles. Stark wore an all-white, flowing princess dress and would sway back and forth and gently swing her arms when her character appeared in the plot. Worden, whose band opened for the Decemberists last time they were in town, succeeded in her efforts to look and sound sinister.
While delivering the unabridged “Hazards of Love” may not be the most palatable approach, in hindsight it is understandable. Each number was largely dependent on the songs around it. Only a few numbers might have stood alone.
“The Wanting Comes In Waves” has a great pop chorus that ultimately serves as the climax to the tale. “The Rake Song” found everyone on stage, save songwriter/frontman Colin Meloy and bass player Nate Query banging on small drum sets placed throughout the stage. The power of those four additional drummers brought the hammer of the gods to the song.
“Margaret in Captivity” was another highlight. Backlit by a huge white light, Stark looked ethereal as the band played an intriguing melody that unfortunately shared the same chord changes as Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive.”
Meloy’s “thank you” at the end of “Hazards” was his first acknowledgement of the audience. However, after the half-hour break, Meloy returned as his usual loquacious self.
The band came back sans Stark and Worden took their time delivering favorites from across their catalog, stopping to tell jokes, organizing sing-alongs, explaining their songs and goading the audience. Before they played “Oceanside” Meloy explained what an ocean is because “I know that many of you have never seen an ocean. It’s much bigger than your muddy Missouri (River).”
Nearly every song in the second hour was greeted with big applause and loud singing. The crowd especially got into “Dracula’s Daughter,” the unreleased number Meloy called his worst song ever. That flowed right into “O Valencia,” which got the biggest response of the night.
At the end of “Valencia,” Worden and Stark snuck back onstage as a single spotlight focused on Meloy playing a familiar Spanish-tinged solo on his acoustic guitar. Suddenly the stage lit up and the rest of the band hit the riff to Heart’s “Crazy On You.” Worden and Stark threw themselves into their new roles as Ann and Nancy Wilson, showing off some great rock and roll pipes.
The encore kicked off with Meloy delivering a solo acoustic reading of the love song “Red Right Ankle.” That was followed by “A Cautionary Song,” which found everyone but Meloy, Query and Conlee parading through the audience with drums, tambourines and other percussion. Somehow Meloy orchestrated that maneuver into a lighthearted restaging of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Whatever. Anyone who sat through an hour of music involving a rake and bought a ticket for something the band called “A Short Fazed Hovel Tour” was definitely up for anything thrown at them.
Setlist: The “Hazards of Love” album. Intermission. Oceanside; July July!; Billy Liar; We Both Go Down Together; The Engine Driver; The Sporting Life; Dracula’s Daughter; O Valencia; Crazy On You; Encore: Red Right Ankle; A Cautionary Song