Music Review

Decemberists must keep it short but sweet

Colin Meloy, frontman for the Decemberists, at the House of Blues Friday night. Colin Meloy, frontman for the Decemberists, at the House of Blues Friday night. (Robert E. Klein
For The Boston Globe)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / January 31, 2011

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The only clue that all was not right in the land of the Decemberists Friday night at the House of Blues was the show’s perplexing shortness.

It made no sense that the Portland, Ore.-based band known for its elaborate and sprawling indie rock opuses and jubilant performances was calling it quits so quickly, after only 70 minutes. Especially given how well the show had been going.

Riding high on the news that its superb, countrified new album, “The King Is Dead,’’ had hit number one on the Billboard album charts, the quintet — with the splendid addition of singer-fiddler-guitarist-utility player Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek — was spot on, as one expertly played track flowed smoothly into another to the delight of the rapt and enthusiastic sold-out crowd.

Led by the mellifluous nasality of frontman Colin Meloy, who peppered the night with his typically amusing asides, the band managed to link its disparate soundscapes. From the new roots-rocking jaunts, including the churning, harmonica-laced “Down by the Water,’’ to vintage old-timey oom-pa-pa romps such as “A Cautionary Song’’ to the poignant piano and pedal steel pop of “Rise to Me,’’ it was easy to get swept into whatever world the band was conjuring thanks to the appealing melodies and detailed particularities of Meloy’s lyrics.

Good cheer was also on the docket. Even when a guitar failed and a band member lost the place momentarily during one song, the group persevered, finding their way back without breaking momentum. At one point, half the band paraded through the crowd armed with drums, jingle bells, and cymbals and goofily assembled themselves in tableaux meant to evoke various famous edifices such as the Washington Monument and the Taj Mahal as Meloy called them out and jovially praised the inventiveness of “the Decemberists’ Family Players.’’

Watkins was an added bonus, ably subbing in the arid harmonies Gillian Welch supplied on “King,’’ contributing elegant and frisky fiddle bits — including a tasty pas de deux with Jenny Conlee’s accordion on “Rox in the Box’’ — soaring with a clarion vocal atop the brawny riffs of the near metallic rocker “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga),’’ and proving a game “Family Player’’ in the crowd.

But it turns out that having the number one album and a string of sold-out shows (two at the House of Blues Friday and Saturday) on your agenda doesn’t protect you from the stomach flu.

Learning after the fact that Meloy was under the weather made his and the band’s performance that much more impressive.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at


At: the House of Blues, Friday