Scotland's Sons and Daughters opened for the Decemberists at the Rialto Saturday night, and got off to a rough start--guitarist Scott Patterson kept breaking strings on his guitar. This was no indication of things to come, however; singer Adele Bethel and bassist/mandolinist Ailidh Lennon both wore flowing red dresses, and Bethel did a serpentine dance (even while holding a guitar) to drummer David Gow's dance-punk beats.
The six-piece Decemberists had no trouble filling the stage with their organ, keyboards, drums, guitars, accordion, pedal steel, mandolin, banjo, violin and upright bass. As the instruments changed, the Decemberists' orchestral, literary Old World-gypsy-folk pop meandered and grew: Singer and guitarist Colin Meloy started out with a nylon-stringed guitar that changed into an electric that changed to an acoustic 12-string and back again. Petra Haden, formerly of that dog., played violin and sang with the band, blending seamlessly with Meloy's warmly flat vocals. The band played selections from all three of their full-length records, including several from this year's Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars). Meloy's songs are often lyrical narratives of characters that are romantic and gothic, invoking a traditional folk sensibility coupled with upbeat indie rock; "This one's autobiographical," Meloy joked before he began playing "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist."
After ending their initial set with "Sixteen Military Wives" ("The closest we get to a political song," said Meloy), the band returned to the stage for a two-song encore that was even better than the rest of their set; it probably felt more like the band's previous Tucson shows at Plush last year. Accordion/keyboard player Jenny Conlee came down from her riser, and drummer Ezra Holbrook and guitarist Chris Funk marched through the audience banging cymbals and a drum, respectively, for "A Cautionary Song"--suddenly, the entire theater turned into an intimate venue. For "The Mariner's Revenge Song," a Moby-Dick inspired ballad told from inside the body of a whale, Meloy asked the audience to scream like they were being swallowed by a whale when Funk gave the signal: chopping his arms together like whale jaws. The actual signal turned out to be a set of giant gray whale jaws with red fabric stuck on then like blood, which Funk used to "devour" Meloy. It was the ultimate example of the performace and creative quality of the Decemberists' songs: simultaneously dramatic and comedic.