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Live Review: The Decemberists w/ Ratboys @ The Anthem — 5/10/24

As The Decemberists played “Burial Ground,” a song from their upcoming album, As It Was, So Will It Ever Be — which comes out next month — the band’s frontman Colin Meloy told the audience at The Anthem, “We are all on a one-way path to our graves. We can choose to fight it or embrace it.”

Colin’s unique perspective lies at the heart of The Decemberists, who are an unlikely success story, a band heavily influenced by British folk-rock that uses bouzoukis and accordions and other unusual instruments and whose lyrics often borrow heavily from history and folklore. But successful they are: In 2011, their album, The King Is Dead, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. They’ve found a dedicated, passionate following who turned out in force for their recent DC show.

Of The Decemberists’ myth-influenced work, nothing is so beloved as The Crane Wife, their 2006 major-label debut. At The Anthem on May 10, the audience cheered when they transitioned from “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” — sung by multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee — into “The Crane Wife 3,” the song that lies at the heart of the album. It’s based on a Japanese tale about a poor man who marries a woman who is actually a crane in disguise — a fact he does not know. To support the couple, the crane plucks her feathers and weaves them into a silk brocade, which causes her to become ill.

Earlier in the set, the band pulled another song from that album, “Shankill Butchers,” about an Ulster loyalist (Protestant) gang  in Northern Ireland who, between 1975 and 1982, were responsible for 23 deaths. It wasn’t just the number of deaths, but their particularly gruesome, brutal manner, that earned the Butchers their infamy — they were so violent that other loyalists turned against them.

Not all of their songs take up such weighty subjects. Some are more personal, based on Meloy’s experiences. He introduced “The Sporting Life as “a song loosely based on my experiences in the 1984 YMCA soccer program” in his hometown of Helena, Montana. And some of their songs tackle more contemporary topics, like “Sixteen Military Wives,” which Colin said was “a little song about the political situation.”

Watch the official music video for “Sixteen Military Wives” by The Decemberists on YouTube:

The set kicked of with “William Fitzwilliam,” followed by “Shankill Butchers,” “The Bachelor and the Bride,” “Don’t Carry It All,” and “Cavalry Captain.” The first few tracks were played in a hushed, largely acoustic format, before they band kicked into full gear. In addition to “Burial Ground,” they played two other new songs, “Oh No!” and “Long White Veil,” which Meloy called “a ghost story.” After “Long White Veil,” the set rounded out with “Sucker’s Prayer” and “16 Military Wives,” and they finished, ironically, with “A Beginning Song.” For their encore, they played another song from the forthcoming album, “Jane In The Garden.”

Before The Decemberists performed, Chicago band Ratboys hit the stage at eight for a 30-minute opening set. Their sound combines alt-country with loud, crunchy, indie rock, with their most recent album, last year’s Window, leaning more heavily into the latter. Fittingly, they began their set with “Making Noise For The Ones You Love.”

After “Morning Zoo,” Lead singer Julia Steiner said, “I feel like the Phantom of the Opera is about to drop down and kick my ass.This song’s about going to toe-to-toe with the Phantom of the Opera in a wrestling ring,” and the band launched into “It’s Alive!” Things got a bit emotional as Julia told the audience the next song, “Elvis Is In The Freezer,” was “about my childhood cat, who was only six years old when he passed away.” Because she was at college, Julia’s mother put the cat in the freezer until she could get home and say her farewell. They rounded out their set with “The Window, “Go Outside,” and “Black Earth, WI.”

Watch Ratboys perform “Black Earth, WI” live for KEXP on YouTube:

I was very excited to catch Ratboys, who are one of the more interesting new bands on the scene in the last decade. They got a great reception from the audience, which had already filled up pretty well when they came out. They got a great reception, and the audience got to see two great bands this night.

Here are some photos of The Decemberists (and one of Ratboys) performing at The Anthem on May 10, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.

 

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