The Decemberists’ new album “The King Is Dead” recently topped the Billboard Hot 100 album charts. A seemingly unlikely feat for a band that only a few years ago seemed comfortably poised to remain the sort of “cult” band that critics love and fans consistently support — in modest numbers. But the group chose a different path, signing with EMI, recording increasingly bombastic albums and enjoying a continuous visibility on major media outlets, including late-night television. The momentum behind the band, coupled with the accessibility of its newest set of songs, has allowed it to flourish commercially in a way most “indie” acts fail to achieve. In fact, the “indie” tag seems vastly misleading for The Decemberists, who all along were capable of a fairly straightforward brand of folk-based pop music with the accessibility and melodic sensibility to reach a larger audience.
The Wiltern, which sold out rapidly for Saturday’s performance, can now be considered an intimate venue for witnessing a Decemberists concert. The band could easily have packed the Palladium or Greek Theatre, but chose a smaller set of venues for the first leg of this tour. With a large canvas of Douglas-fir trees draped along the back wall of the stage the band emerged behind frontman Colin Meloy, donning his signature black, thick-framed glasses and flannel shirt. The group immediately kicked into “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” from their second album “Her Majesty.” A breezy, calypso-based tune that biliously recounts the shallow wasteland of Meloy’s envisioned Los Angeles. With irony lost on many, the audience gleefully cheered as Meloy openly sang the city’s name behind venomous refrains: “How I abhor this place / It’s sweet and bitter taste / has left me wretched retching on all fours / Los Angeles, I’m yours.”
Meloy has always had a knack for infusing intellect and dense imagery into seemingly simplistic song structures, but the newer material seems wanting in the area of lyrical inventiveness. The group played through a number of these new songs early in the set including “Calamity Song,” “Rise To Me,” and the lovely R.E.M. homage “Down By The Water.” In fact, much of the musical language explored in the band’s new material derives from that period of early ’90s alt country nostalgia. The live arrangements were subtle and carefully-mixed, allowing Meloy’s voice to rise above the drums, bowed fiddle, mandolin, pedal steel and accordion. For the most part, this achieved the intended effect of lending clarity to the group’s driving creative tool while creating a tranquil musical landscape. But there were times when the band attempted to stretch out musically, but seemed incapable of truly pulling off a bigger, more brutal sound. “Won’t Want For Love,” a barroom, blues-inspired rocker fell flat while “Crane Wife 3” lacked the overall “Born To Run” bombast of its recorded counterpart.
Female vocal trio Mountain Man opened the show with an endearing set of traditional-leaning folk music, which employed complex harmonic arrangements.