Three weeks before the Decemberists premiered their new album, The Hazards of Love, at SXSW, the band's singer-songwriter Colin Meloy told me that they had not rehearsed the record in its entirety yet. In that interview, Meloy also marveled on how the Who used to perform all of their rock opera, Tommy, with just guitar, bass, vocals and drums.
At Stubb's last night, the Decemberists came armed to the teeth for their album's live premiere, broadcast nationwide by NPR. Guitarist Chris Funk had a full armory of strings, including pedal steel guitar and bouzouki. There were helpmates: singer-instrumentalists Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. And there were five drum kits ready for banging in the percussion-and-chant orgy "The Rake's Song," a number which sounded especially big and right in the open-air venue.
Originally conceived by Meloy as a Broadway musical, The Hazards of Love is the consummation of his recent obsession with the antique melodies, arcane language and rock energy of the British folk revival of the 1960s and '70s. Stark channeled Steeleye Span's Maddy Prior in the Yorkshire-country waltz "Isn't It a Lovely Night," a duet with Meloy. But Meloy has also discovered and let loose his inner progressive-metal head. The medley of "The Waiting Comes in Waves" and "Repaid" was an extended bomb of Jenny Conlee's foreboding Renaissance harpsichord, the fourth Led Zeppelin album and, in Worden's lusty vocal, psychedelic-R&B vengeance.
Actually, in playing the whole album like a flesh-and-blood jukebox with none of the charming budget theatricals of their Picaresque shows the Decemberists sold the commercial savvy in Meloy's songs like a classic rock band. In the '70s, the Deep Purple-style muscle of "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing" and the arena-climax vocal chorus in "The Waiting Comes in Waves" would have been FM-radio gold. Instead, 30 years later, the Decemberists will have to sell these songs and their ambition city by city, like medieval troubadours. (The album will be the centerpiece of their upcoming spring tour.) And Meloy clearly relishes the prospect. He signed off, in the short two-song encore, with "I Was Meant for the Stage," from the 2003 album, Her Majesty.
The Hazards of Love is unashamedly over the top in its dreams and execution. And at SXSW, the Decemberists nailed it that way. Their opera is ready for the road.