The Decemberists: Rollicking good show

The Norva: a big-enough, not-too-big, dark wooden floor.  Scarred and heavily coated.  Brick walls.  Big pillars that block the stage from the sides.  Two bars, one off the main floor and one up on the balcony.  Sure do like a balcony.  And old stained-glass windows on the third floor, hiding the offices.
So there I am, nodding in appreciation for a good room, a good venue.  James and I got drinks and before long I needed to pee.  You know, it happens, even though you wish it wouldn’t.  Because that means being intimate with a grungy bar/show bathroom.

And the weirdest thing.  I push open the swinging door to the women’s room and the mellow light inside bathes a sight that assaults my eyes with the unexpected.  Cleanliness.  Sponged on multi-colored paint without a single message from a previous user scrawled across the long expanse.  Neat tile, moldless grout.  Ten gleaming sinks in two rows facing one another, staring in each other’s shining mirrors.  And beyond, fourteen toilet stalls, each with a white toilet and more impecable, silent walls dividing them.

No, this won’t be a whole post about the Norva bathroom.  I have to say, though, it was a shock to the system.  The rest of the place had the lovely darkness that refuses to divert attention from the stage, even the bars being low-light affairs.

Well, I was curious enough I had to look it up.  The building is about 80 years old and was renovated in 1998.  I cannot believe that bathroom is 11 years old…they must have done more since.  Everything I read about it focuses on the 7 person jacuzzi, sauna, and indoor basketball court for the performers.  Like I care, since I don’t get to enjoy it myself!  (Sour grapes?  Perhaps.)

Anyway, we sat up in the balcony and watched the opening band on a couple of monitors that showed us what was happening on the stage we couldn’t see from our table.  The picture wasn’t great, but shooting in a live music situation from permanently installed cameras…well, it’s not guaranteed to give you the best view.  And really, they were right there – if we cared about seeing well, we’d’ve stood.

The opening band was seriously percussion-deficient.  As in, there was almost none, and not just in the mix.  There was no dedicated percussionist, though a couple of band members sat at a little drum station and hit things for a few measures in a few songs.  Really, there wasn’t a single song with percussion all the way through.  With that and the high, clear voice of the singer and the pretty nicely played fiddle, it was an airy sound that made little impact on me.  A few of the melodies were lovely, with nice holds, sharp, close harmonies, and unexpected resolutions that I enjoyed, but overall, I was not wowed.

Oh, and they took themselves very seriously.  Want proof?  Band name: The Hollow Flame.

Okay, then there was a long, long silence.  Except it wasn’t silent.  The extraordinarily long break between bands was filled with the sound of Pink Floyd and, yes, it was surreal.

And the show.  The Decemberists played two sets.  The first set was a long, rollicking musical mosaic from what must be their latest album…the one I don’t have.  The Hazards of Love.  It seems that the album is one long story, like rock opera, but more coherent.  I don’t even know if I heard the whole thing, but what I heard was fabulous.  There wasn’t much of the sea shanty to this one, and they even go heavy metal for certain parts, but the lyrics, language and imagery alike, are lovely as ever, and the music is creative and played beautifully by the whole ensemble.  It included two singers who aren’t part of the usual group and have projects of their own.
Yep, I’ll need to get that album.

After another long, long break, I got the part I recognized.  Billy Liar, The Sporting Life, We Both Go Down Together, among other sing-along favorites of mine.  The Bachelor and the Bride was as strange and hurtful and beautiful as I’ve experienced on road trips and sitting quietly on the boat.  Really, if you haven’t heard the album Her Majesty, the Decemberists…go now and obtain a copy.  Spend some time listening to it, don’t listen while reading or writing or blogging…

What I didn’t hear and missed: Red Right Ankle; I Was Meant for the Stage; Los Angeles, I’m Yours.  Goodness, I would have listened to them play their entire oeuvre, had they wanted to do any such thing.

They did one cover – Heart’s Crazy on You.  It was a moment featuring the two guest singers who take two of the roles in the Hazards of Love set. Giving them a front-and-center song to share was nice, and they did a great job on it.  It’s a loud, wailing piece, and the alto/soprano split they’d maintained up until then gave way to the sharing of melody that Ann and Nancy were so good at.

Sound was impeccable – the sound system is gorgeous to those who enjoy such technical matters.  James was impressed, and that doesn’t happen easily.  The mix was more-or-less good, though the singers change from lead to backup enough that the sound level didn’t always rise and fall exactly at the beginnings and endings of solo bits.

There was theater as well.  The lead singer, Colin, had a fine time controlling a large room full of fans, having us sing, splitting us into three parts and bringing the dynamic of each up and down separately until we all did an enormous crescendo together.  My watching-brain was amused by the placement of us all under his will so well and thoroughly, but I sang with the rest.
Finally, a thoroughly hysterical reinactment of the making of the film Fitzcarraldo.  Now, this was strange enough in its screen version.  With a crowd of people forming the mountain out of their raised arms and a band member playing the part of the ship being hauled up the mountain, dropped, and hauled up again before breaking up in the rapids…well, you will have to make your own picture of it.

The only thing that could have made the show better is something I wouldn’t want.  If their live sound was leaps better than their recorded sound, as with so many other bands, it would have felt even better to experience the live show, for which we paid dearly out of our food budget.  But it’s hard to begrudge well-recorded albums that will continue to please me long after they have left Norfolk behind.


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