By: Emily Jackson
Much like the lyrics of the songs themselves, the performances by Colin Meloy and Eleanor Friedberger last night at the Variety Playhouse told epic tales, complete with villains, heroes, challenges and triumphs. Both musicians are ordinarily the lead singers for more elaborate ensembles, but that didn’t diminish the success of the poetic pair’s stripped-down setup.
The narrative evening began with a short medley of melodies by Friedberger, the sister half of a brother/sister band called the Fiery Furnaces. Upon sitting down, she took note of the eager crowd standing in front of her and said it was a nice change compared to many of the fully seated audiences she and Meloy had played for lately, a sentiment echoed at the beginning of his set.
Friedberger may be in a band with her older sibling but that doesn’t mean her music alone can’t fill a venue. Her voice varied from soft and sweet to impassioned and powerful throughout the one-woman routine, reciting complex rhymes and mixing mild crowd-teasing comments in between songs. It was obvious that this was the sort of virtuosic songwriting that requires an attentive listener. Fortunately, Eleanor’s good humor and superior story-telling abilities kept everyone attentive. She closed her set with a technically demanding song which consisted of crooning and strumming over a pulsating beat.
Additional show goers huddled in, filling in any gaps in the standing section to wait for the Decemberists frontman to take the stage. During this latter half of the night of solo acts, Colin encouraged a campfire sing-a-long vibe, fostering feelings of fellowship in the crowd. Unsurprisingly, he began the set with a blaring harmonica immediately recognizable as the first track off of the Decemberists’ latest album The King Is Dead. While this opener may have been a bit predictable, it lent an ebullient energy to the auditorium and made a suitable preface for the many musical surprises that followed.
Somehow Meloy prepared a setlist that combined its fair share of songs from The King Is Dead with new unrecorded material, classic Decemeberists ballads and a song about getting his kid to eat his oatmeal. Early on in the set, he did his own rendition of “Do You Remember Walter” by the Kinks who he plans on paying tribute to throughout his solo tour. He even preformed an aria from the Decemberists’ operatic Hazards of Love album. It was a rare treat to hear the song “Won’t Want for Love,” originally recorded in the breathy soprano of Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond, sung by a man’s voice.
The encore managed to bring together all the most important elements of the eclectic set – bonfire-worthy melodies, heartwarming vocals and folkloric lyrics. Using little more than his words and his guitar, Meloy told the tale of “The Crane Wife” from beginning to end. He didn’t seem to mind whenever his songs took on a harmonic life of their own in the voices of the crowd.
Eleanor and Colin’s respective performances seemed to combine the best of what each artist had in their musical and dramatic repertoires. Neither songwriter shied away from their more imaginative, conceptual material. As a result, we all went home with our need for music as well as our need for good stories satisfied.
Category: Live Reviews