On Wednesday, June 3rd, The Decemberists performed at the Tabernacle in Atlanta. It’s taken me about the intervening two weeks to fully digest it all.
My friend and colleague, Tim Price-Williams, is a big fan of the Tabernacle and drew out a diagram for me and my wife on where to sit and how to get those seats. First, we needed to arrive two hours before the doors opened at 7. Then we were to sit outside the left (not the right, or the far right VIP entrance) doors. As the doors opened, we needed to proceed to the left and up the stairs to the first balcony. Tim drew a map of the second balcony and then pointed out the four seats he deemed acceptable, just to the left and the right of center stage and flushed against the forward railing. Wait an hour for the opening band. Then wait another hour for the main show.
We messed up Tim’s well laid plans from the get go when I forgot to pick up the baby sitter on the way home from work. After that we were stuck in remarkably heavy traffic and didn’t find parking until about 6 o’clock. As we waited in line I made a quick trip across the street to pick up a chicken sandwich at Ted’s Montana Grill for dinner. I’ve been habituated to fast-food chicken sandwiches for years and was pleasantly surprised to find that the basic recipe can indeed be improved upon. The line started moving at 6:45 so Tamara and I had to eat quickly.
This is where Tim’s advice came in very handy. He recommended that we each have our tickets in our hands to be scanned – if one of us fell along the way the other could continue on to the prized seats on the balcony. Everyone else apparently wanted to stand in front of the stage, so we had no problem getting to the second balcony (we didn’t even realize that there was a first balcony above us) and managed to get two seats a row back from the ones we had coveted.
The opening band was Blind Pilot (we joked that they were composed of the injured members of Stone Temple Pilots) but it turned out that they are another band from the pacific northwest with an eclectic instrumentation and a folksy/rock feel. They were really good. But we were there to hear The Hazards of Love.
The Hazards of Love is a concept album by The Decemberists. Based on an apparently original Welsh mythology cycle, it was written by lead singer Colin Meloy while in Paris. It’s received some mixed reviews while the standout songs have been The Rake’s Song and The Wanting Comes in Waves. Part of the difficulty follows from trying to understand what the songs are about, which is particularly difficult for me since I generally don’t hear lyrics. Tamara has made some progress in untangling the characters and the events of the songs, however, and during the break between Blind Pilots and The Decemberists she explained quite a bit of it to me.
The Tabernacle, by the way, is a renovated classic movie theater that looks much better with the lights out than with them on. It is an amazing venue. The backdrop for the show – gigantic gauze sheets hanging from the ceiling – along with impressive lighting made it even more so.
We didn’t know exactly what to expect since concept albums are typically something done in a studio. We thought that this would be a modified presentation of some highlights from the album. Instead it was a full performance of Hazards of Love straight through and faultless.
As the performance progressed, I came to realize that I had fundamentally misunderstood the relationship between the album and the concert. Normally a concert tour is meant to reproduce an album for fans. In this case, I slowly realized, the album is just a memento of the concert itself. I don’t go to that many rock concerts, so it doesn’t mean much when I say it was the best one I’ve seen. It was, nevertheless, an event that has left a deep impression on me and still stays with me after these weeks.
The core members of The Decemberists were dressed in formal suits for the performance of Hazards. Shara Worden and Becky Stark, who sing on the album as the Forest Queen and the heroine Margaret, respectively, were dressed in renaissance fair costumes appropriate to the theme. Shara Worden has the attitude of Joan Jett and the voice of Grace Slick. Becky Stark was simply ethereal waving her arms about like Elfine Starkadder the whole time.
Again, I have trouble what actually happened during the performance of Hazards itself. There are large portions of it I can’t even quite remember, and all I have is the strong impression that something amazing occurred.
I do remember that after The Decemberists, Ms. Worden and Ms. Stark finished with Hazards of Love, and after a half-hour intermission, The Decemberists came back out and performed some songs from their previous four albums. Then Shara Warden and Becky Stark closed the show with a cover of Heart’s “Crazy On You” which I still can’t get out of my head. For an encore, Colin Meloy constructed a story about the building of the trans-American railway with audience participation while the rest of The Decemberist led a conga-line through the hall. I also vaguely recall singing Sixteen Military Wives as a round with the floor, the first balcony and the second balcony performing the parts. The second balcony was clearly the best.
On the drive home I fell into a melancholic mood; I had the sense that some part of me had been sleeping for a long time and that after waking it up I had left it behind at the Tabernacle. I now find myself replaying The Hazards of Love again and again on my iPod trying to recapture how that lovely night felt.