Decemberists bring the rock to Milwaukee

Alex Schaaf

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting of the Decemberists before I entered Milwaukee’s beautiful Riverside Theater last night, but I can say without a doubt that my expectations were far, far surpassed. Colin Meloy and company put one of the finest, most memorable shows I’ve seen in the past few years.
When talk starts up of the Decemberists, the words you usually hear flung around are “bookish,” “nerdy,” or “bring a dictionary.” These all may be true, but they are no longer the band’s defining characteristics. Hazards of Love, their newest release, is a tremendously ambitious album centered on Margaret, who is tricked by a shape-shifting deer, and then runs into a forest queen, an evil rake, and.oh hell, who even cares. What really matters is that the new Decemberists know how to bring the rock.
Listening to the album, I had a suspicion that this show may be a bit different than their past performances. Many tracks start off in the same vein as songs from Castaways and Cutouts or Picaresque, before drastically veering off into half time, head banging sections filled with delicious near-metal riffs. A perfect example of this is “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” which turned into one of my all-time favorite live experiences.
The band played Hazards of Love in its entirety for the first set, as they are doing every night of this tour. The album came off very well in a live setting, starting with Jenny Conlee alone on the organ and growing into a pulsing, head banging set. The highlights of the live performance were the riff-laden metal sections of songs like “Repaid,” “The Queen’s Rebuke” or “Won’t Want for Love,” but even the softer sections served well to provide moments of rest in between those high marks.
I think anyone who was in the Riverside Theater Friday night can agree that Shara Worden stole the show. Worden, of My Brightest Diamond, guested on Hazards of Love along with Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond, and both women are accompanying the band on this tour to recreate the album. Stark was captivating in her own way, as she has a beautiful voice that she pairs with twirling, spinning dance moves that lead to a very convincing portrayal of Margaret. But Worden is something else. Storming to the front of the stage for “Repaid” in a short black dress, she absolutely dominated the song with her powerful vocals and fully assured stage presence. From there on out, she received a huge ovation from the crowd whenever she came out from her post in the back of the stage.
After playing the album through, the band took a short break before coming out for a second set. This section of the night served to please any remaining fans who weren’t convinced by Hazards, as they played old favorites “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” “Leslie Anne Levine,” “Yankee Bayonet” and “Sixteen Military Wives.”
The closer of the second set was a mind-blower. When the opening riffs started, I think the crowd had a collective, “Wait, no, is this.? Is it really.?” And yes, it was a cover of Heart’s “Crazy on You,” featuring both Stark and Warden on blistering vocals. Meloy seemed to be in awe of the two women as they belted out the vocals of this timeless classic.
Coming out for an encore, Meloy played a solo version of “Red Right Ankle” before getting the band out for one more song. Inviting crowd members on stage, over 100 people were on stage to sing along to “Sons & Daughters”, uniting on the “Hear all the bombs fade away” line from the Crane Wife album closer.
All in all this night was not one to forget, and I strongly encourage anyone who can to go see the Decemberists on this tour. If nothing else, at least go to see Shara Worden tear down the house.