(Opinion) The Decemberists gave a great show Saturday night at College Street Music Hall: tight, bouncy, and just the right length, like a yo-yo wielded by a master. I was a safe bet to love the show, since there is no band currently active — at least, no band currently very active — whose studio recordings I dig more. If you don’t know their sound, try to imagine The Jayhawks crossed with The Chieftains. Or, if that doesn’t work, Bob Mould fronting Oasis. Or just watch some clips on YouTube. Maybe then you can explain to me why I always think they are somehow Irish or British, even though they’re from Portland, Oregon.
Anyway, the show was great, yet I did not have a great time.
This conundrum has obsessed me since the show ended, which is why it’s Wednesday and I’m finally getting around to writing about a Saturday show. But I’ve figured it out, and it comes down to this: it was another one of those rock shows without chairs.
If you see much music, you know the drill. At some shows there are seats, at other shows the floor is cleared of chairs and you have to stand, and at still other shows there’s a mix, with some tickets getting you a seat and others getting you “on the floor,” where you get to stand. At a hard rock or punk show you want to stand, because that’s where the serious dancing is. In a Broadway theater or cabaret, standing room (when it exists) is at the back of the hall, and those are the cheap seats. At a stadium show, whatever the genre, if you’re standing, you’re on the field, and that means proximity to the act, which is a good thing.
But I tend to go to dad-rock shows, often at theaters like College Street Music Hall in New Haven, the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass., or the Music Hall of Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. The acts I go to see are, by any definition, rock bands, but they aren’t headbanger bands or mosh bands, which each have their styles of dancing, nor are they jam bands, to which one might get all dervish-y. The Jayhawks, the Decemberists, Dawes — that’s my speed. And nobody really knows how to dance to these acts.
It’s become something of a truism among critics that nobody dances to rock any more. People dance — not just to harder stuff, but to country and western, traditional stuff, swing and big-band, R&B, hip hop, klezmer. But a lot of rock, although very much the child or cousin of all those genres, has in this big way come to resemble another of its parents: jazz. Dancing to the Decemberists would seem about as natural as dancing to Joe Lovano.
So why, then, did College Street Music Hall set up the downstairs as general-admission, standing-only? Why didn’t we get the chairs, the way we did for the great Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt show, two years ago? Is it because Lovett is about 20 years older than Colin Meloy of the Decemberists (who, at 42, is my age), and therefore we can safely assume that his fans are creaky and arthritic, whereas the Decemberists draw a haler bunch?
But those hale, upright Decemberists fans, the people smooshed up against me on the floor, spilling their beers on me — I know that, like me, they’d rather have been sitting. They didn’t dance, not a one of them. I’d say two-thirds of the crowd were straight men, not about to shimmy with each other; they did that gentle half-hearted pogo thing, their feet never really leaving the floor, more just their legs supporting their bobbing heads, while they half-closed their eyes and mouthed the lyrics to songs they had committed to memory, perhaps during their dangerous (because earbudded) morning bicycle commute.
If we’d all been sitting, or at least standing but in front of assigned seats, then the sub-six-foot among us (so nearly all the women) might have seen the stage. If we’d all been sitting, the couples could have snuggled and the singletons could have leaned back and taken in the music, instead of giving half their brainspace to scanning the floor around us for slots to make their move, hoping that when one chump left for a beer they could slip into his void, getting six inches closer to the stage.
It all made it harder to focus on “Down by the Water,” “Odalisque,” “We Both Go Down Together,” and the Decemberists’ whole decade-long run of music-making that comes as near as anything to making me sense the spirit of R.E.M. levitating in the rafters. The catalogue was given a good run-through on Saturday, and the sold-out crowd got the small-hall experience from a band that deserves ten times the fans they have.
My quibbles aren’t with the band, unless I were to complain that they left out “Rox in the Box” — or did they? Maybe that came during the encore, which I didn’t stay for. My feet hurt.