Colin Meloy Wonder Ballroom May 3, 2008
It wasn’t that long ago that Colin Meloy was playing solo around town, amusing himself and the staff at the various bars in which he performed, with few others in the audience. Since then, he managed to form the Decemberists, a band which has met with no small national success- especially among the more literary among today’s music listeners. So it was not particularly startling that his return to Portland in a solo capacity was met with an adoring crowd, eager to love him.
Meloy is the type of artist for whom there is no middle ground. You either love him or hate him. Detractors have hung the “precious” label on him more than once. And his astute adherence to quasi-historical references in his songs, as well as a highly developed vocabulary, have led some to condemn him- despite the fact that his approach is not particularly new. It is possible that the early 20th Century poet Edward Arlington Robinson (“Richard Cory,” “Luke Havergal”) has played a part in Meloy’s work. But there are other antecedents too.
Al Stewart, who scored a few hits in the early and mid-70’s, tapped into the historical vein with a song called “Roads To Moscow” (among several others throughout his early career) from his album Past, Present And Future (1973). That song charted the disastrous German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and clocked in at over nine minutes in length- and, despite the fact that Meloy wasn’t even born when the song was released, his nasally vocal resemblance to Al Stewart is uncanny. And given his penchant for obscure covers, Meloy would be well advised to check out “Roads To Moscow” as a possible addition to his set list.
Opening act, Laura Gibson was a vague musical shadow, etching out imperfect songs that lacked definition, sung with a wan voice, familiar in this era of wan-voiced young women who sing their songs.
But the crowd was hungry for Colin Meloy and, in that regard, he fed them with a selection of songs from most of the Decemberists oeuvre- but also with a cover or two and a preview of a triptych of songs scheduled to appear on the next Decemberists next recording; as well as the occasional oddity and out take.
Ostensibly, this and other performances on his current tour were in support of his newly released solo CD- Colin Meloy Sings Live (Kill Rock Stars in CD format. Jealous Butcher for the vinyl- which contains a bonus track), which was recorded during his 2006 solo tour.
Kicking the evening off with “Shiny” from the Decemberists 2003 EP, Five Songs, Colin immediately held the swooning throng in the palm of his hand. From there, he drew from all of the Decembrists albums- with a preponderance of the material from the most recent releases: Picaresque (2005) and Crane Wife (2006).
Highlights of the evening included a sterling version of the aforementioned “Shiny,” a cute rendering of the band’s “hit,” “Perfect Crime,” whereby the audience provided the signature Chris Funk (Decemberists lead guitarist) guitar riff. A fine rendition of “Red Right Ankle” and a stirring version of “The Sporting Life” were also noteworthy. An oddity was the Meloy’s brief demonstration of his “worst song ever,” “Dracula’s Daughter,” which seemed not nearly so bad as most of The Tain.
Of lesser impact was his take (in a duet with Laura Gibson) on Sam Cooke’s chestnut “Cupid.” The pair did nothing to improve upon the song and, primarily, just made their way through it. But the packed house did not care. They would have (and possibly did) loved Colin Meloy clearing his throat or enduring a coughing fit. And rightfully so, as the hometown boy (by way of Montana) had made good and the crowd rewarded him accordingly.
Still, it must be said that Meloy employs an array of vocal affectations that can truly distract the casual listener. His Cockney dialect seems feigned and unreal, despite the subject matter of many of his compositions. And his apparent occasional speech impediment, which will not allow him to consistently pronounce an “or” sound- such as on “I Was Meant For The Stage,“ where sometimes “boids” for “boards,” sometimes “escorted” pronounced accurately.
If this did not seem wholly intentional and exaggerated, it would not be noteworthy. But this pretension, as with other vocal peculiarities, seem to have cropped up since the days of 5 Songs and Castaways And Cutouts, where they were not readily apparent.
Still, that quibble aside, Colin Meloy is an unusual talent, with great skills for creating and defining a milieu which he alone populates and he alone can depict. And for that, he readily deserves all the attention and adulation that might come his way.