In his ill-fitting khaki blazer, button-down shirt, and floppy necktie, Colin Meloy looked every bit the rumpled college professor as he stood with the Decemberists in front of a Japanese-themed backdrop, reddish-orange paper lanterns and all. But if it was a little while before most of the Orpheum’s capacity crowd were up on their feet, that wasn’t because anyone (except me and a few other critics) was taking notes. No, Meloy and his five Decemberists simply took their time building the kind of momentum that prompts one to stand rather than sit at a typical rock show. Of course, there’s nothing typical about the Decemberists — at least not on the surface. When Meloy sings about war on the their new The Crane Wife (Capitol), it’s the American Civil War he’s talking about, bayonets and the battle of Manassas (better known as Bull Run here in the North).
But Meloy’s penchant for historical fictions, poetic turns of phrase, and unusual instrumentation (Saturday that included what looked to be a bouzouki, accordion, banjo, and upright bass along with the expected Hammond organ, electric bass, guitars, and drums) is something of a smokescreen. Even if “The Perfect Crime #2” — one of the tunes that got the crowd standing — sounds like something that might have been written around the time of Jack the Ripper, at heart it’s just a catchy rock song. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard three electric guitars make as little noise as they did for the first half of it. Eventually Meloy kicked things up a notch for what turned out to be an extended, string-bending solo that segued into a funky, Hammond-laced breakdown. By then, people were dancing, not taking notes. And the Decemberists’ precious lit rock was sounding right at home in the Orpheum.