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ReViewed: The Decemberists with the Grant Park Orchestra

By Sarah Dahnke in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 19, 2007 3:23PM

2007_7_18_decemberists1.JPGLast night's Decemberists show at Millennium Park was the last stop on the band's mini-tour playing with symphonies around the country. The free concert, curated by Metro, had the highest attendance volume of any free show we've ever seen at the park, and although we're bad with guessing crowd sizes, we'd venture to say there were upwards of 10,000 people in and around the amphitheater trying to at least hear a glimpse of sound. And while the band's folky harmonies blended perfectly with the army of stringed instruments in the Grant Park Orchestra, the band's drunken sailor-like stage antics created quite a contrast with the usually serene atmosphere during the park's summer concert series.

Photos and review continue after the jump.

2007_7_18_decemberists11.JPGThe show had a gentle beginning, and it seemed as if lead singer Colin Meloy had to get his feet wet and warm up to the unfamiliar atmosphere. Looking out into the sea of people, it was clear that this crowd was difficult to wrangle.

2007_7_18_decemberists5.JPGWhile there were hundreds, nay, thousands, of Decemberists fans on the lawn, many of the up-close patrons, holders of Grant Park Music Festival memberships, were clearly unfamiliar with the band, and we noticed quite a few opting to leave after only a couple of songs.

2007_7_18_decemberists9.JPGBut Meloy finally broke through the barrier, rocking out face up within the first 15 minutes of the show and doing a victory lap down the middle aisle, to the back of the reserved seating, and all the way around to stage left, high fiving shirtless 20-somethings along the way.

2007_7_18_decemberists2.JPGPersonally, we were enthralled with organist/vocalist/acordianist Jenny Conlee, who was situated directly in front of us. She quietly played the keys, barely even glancing at the audience until the band played their epic 15-minute-long Irish legend "The Tain." But then, her sweet vocals, dripping with sincerity and innocence, almost brought a complete hush to the giant crowd.

2007_7_18_decemberists10.JPGAnd about halfway through "The Tain," the band swapped instruments, with drummer John Moen leaving the kit to play the melodica and Meloy hopping on percussion.

2007_7_18_decemberists8.JPGEven though much of the show involved band members rocking out, often horizontally, Decemberists fans know well that their signature sound is awfully mellow and therefore accessible. Meloy said the band's studio recordings usually include one or two string instruments, which are engineered to sound orchestral, and this latest tour has allowed them to hear and play their music as he always imagined it should be. With every song in the set, the endeavor became more successful, building up to the band's jaw-dropping finale "I Was Meant for the Stage." The symphony's carefully placed, swelling strings were endearing and beautiful for the entire set, but by the time the band reached the final song with the symphony, we felt a communal, simultaneous heart-clutch and swoon. Yes, crowds of people from coast-to-coast cry into their soy lattes over these indie rock darlings, and loving them is almost cliche at this point. But seeing them backed by a symphony brought their music alive in a way we could have never imagined.

2007_7_18_decemberists3.JPGAfter the symphony members left their seats and the band returned for an encore, the enormous stage looked empty with the five lone band members remaining. Implying that the atmosphere was a little too stuffy, Meloy invited everyone to rush forward to the stage, causing a minor security hissy fit. (Standing in the aisles at Pritzker Pavillion is almost always prohibited, even though the rules are often broken.)

2007_7_18_decemberists6.JPGJust like the sea captains and other salty maritime players The Decemberists often sing about, the band ended the night on the floor after a highly successful encore, which ended just in time, narrowly escaping the thunderstorm.