The Hollywood Bowl
Saturday, July 7
The Los Angeles Philharmonic is one hell of a back-up band, and the Hollywood Bowl is an intimidating venue. Rock bands -- especially of the quirky, indie variety -- used to such L.A.-area joints as the Troubadour and the Music Box can sound adrift when faced with the venue's historical importance, the orchestra's worldly cachet and even the patrons' champagne picnics.
Fortunately, the Decemberists on Saturday needed only the sweeping songs from their more operatic albums, last year's concept album "The Crane Wife" and 2005's "Picaresque," to blend seamlessly with both the imposing Phil and the Bowl. Vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Colin Meloy confidently led his quartet consisting of organist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query and drummer John Moen, who understandably seemed a little surprised by the symphonic power coming from the 50-plus-member Phil hovering over them like a thought bubble.
The orchestra, led by guest conductor Mark Watters, could have overwhelmed or misinterpreted the Decemberists' delicately arranged songs, but Watters used the extra firepower to give Meloy's croony anthems new shadow, bombast and flavor -- the strings amplifying asides in the choruses of "The Crane Wife 1 & 2," and the bass drum echoing the footsteps of elephants stomping through "Infanta." Watters wisely also kept the orchestra at bay and shut up them entirely to let the band belt out "Yankee Bayonet" and "The Chimbley Sweep" on its own. By the end of the night, the Phil clearly was playing the symphony that has been sawing away in Meloy's head all along.
It didn't take long for the Portland, Ore., band to perk up and match Meloy's infectious excitement over playing under the famous bandshell, despite some recurring technical problems with an overly crunchy-sounding guitar. Moon-faced Meloy -- quite the indie hearthrob in a white pinstripe suit, thick sideburns and Elvis Costello specs -- did what most of us would do if playing the Bowl for the first time, leaping about the stage and slapping high fives while jogging Bono-like around the runway stretching over the audience. When Meloy requested the audience turn on their cell phones and wave them in the air, he delighted that the thousands of blue swaying lights looked like the stick-up glowing stars on his bedroom ceiling.
The Decemberists topped the evening with their closing number "I Was Meant for the Stage," Meloy's "My Way"-esque ode to the love of the stage where "all my sins were pardoned." His triumphant delivery felt so personal and exuberant that many audience members' hearts melted right into what was left of the brie. And those who have watched the band grow were right there with him, smiling and swaying the lights of their cell phones like stars