March 29, 2004

Live Report: The Decemberists, Dios, Clearlake, and Tom Heinl, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,The Khyber, March 24, 2004

After canceling a show with the Walkmen late last year due to illness, the Decemberists saw fit to reschedule for last Wednesday. I switched shifts last minute to catch this gig since I’d read so much elsewhere about Clearlake and Dios, and have an ongoing fascination with the Decemberists’ mystique, even if it has been somewhat overstated. Unfortunately, this show proved the old cliché that shit really does roll downhill.

Dios, a young quintet from southern California, played with considerable poise for a band seeking to prove itself and live up to the hype. Touring on a forthcoming eponymous debut, they went through their sunny set in workmanlike fashion, rarely talking with the audience, except to say how glad they were to be playing to adults, instead of the younger folks that populated the earlier shows on the tour. I was taken aback at how well their compositions held up in a venue known for its sometimes spotty sound. Keys, samples, and backing vocals all found their places. While it’s easy to notice their admitted Beach Boys fetish, this band doesn’t sound like so many now defunct Elephant 6 bands (contrary to Magnet Magazine’s prediction that E6 would take over the world). Dios eschew the lo-fi aesthetic that ultimately crippled E6 disciples as they grew more technically sophisticated and from listening to the Los Arboles EP, Dios sound like a young band that can only improve lyrically and realize their sound in due time.

Everything seemed out of joint after Dios’ set.

Tom Heinl, a solo performer who sounds like a country-western Jonathan Richman doing karaoke parodies of tears-in-my-beer/pie-in-the-sky songs, stole the show. His songs about his life in Eugene, Oregon, were hilarious, cracking the shopworn veneer of many hipsters’ self-image. Sometimes seated in a decrepit wooden rocking chair, sometimes holding onto his standing lamp for support, Heinl regaled the audience with tales of his youth, when not chronicling his ex-wives in song, occasionally reading from his fifth grade journal for interstitial humor. He was cheered back to the stage for a one-song encore, not only out of genuine love from the audience, but also because Clearlake hadn’t yet emerged from their dressing room.

And then things got weird and worse.

Heinl’s set was difficult to follow because he encouraged the audience to let down their guard and enjoy themselves. Clearlake, almost as a function of being from Britain, relies on a permissive indie crowd-how many British bands have been so happily received by different strata within the American rock press, only to peter out within a year from their stateside debut? Granted, their 2003 release, Cedars, sounds great on the stereo, but the crispness was lost in the sonic mushiness many rock fans have come to hate about the Khyber. An equipment failure and some frustrated banter with the audience didn’t help matters. The Khyber should publish a note to all U.K. acts-Caveat emptor: you will be rendered identical to British Sea Power by our soundman. Although they played energetically and didn’t alienate the audience, Clearlake didn’t win anyone over with their performance.

The night concluded with a letdown. The Decemberists played several numbers from their debut and Her Majesty, and Colin Meloy’s cloying and fey affectations were generally well-received, even if it was like watching The Trouble with Sweeney do a set of wharf-rock and Dickens/Kipling pop. But this voyage wouldn’t be complete until they embarked on the tedious and painful epic, The Tain. A five part song released recently, The Tain is a Weezer-gone-metal “interpretation” of an eighth century saga. While girls in their early twenties fawned over Meloy, and the Jethro Tull fans behind me oohed and aahed with each boring riff, I couldn’t believe I stood in the same place for almost four hours to watch hopelessly as this 30 minute piece of shit happened. The crowd, as if hypnotized, applauded and somehow swayed with the plodding tempo, encouraging the band to continue. Meloy returned to the stage for a one-off, and after bitching about nearly inaudible feedback, he did a half-hearted “cover” of “Radio On” before playing that song about the red right ankle, ending with the drummer in crocodile tears.

In the bar upstairs, a DJ night paid tribute to Jonathan Richman. Meloy remarked that Jonathan Richman attended a very early Decemberists show in California, only to tell them that they were too loud. Loud they were last Wednesday, and it seems they’ve gone tone deaf as well.

--JT Ramsay

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