As my friend Kate and I walked up Shevlin Hixon Drive toward Les Schwab Amphitheater late Sunday afternoon, we could hear the sounds of a band taking the stage.
It was 6 p.m., and I knew it was Canadian songwriter Dan Mangan coming out to play an opening set for the night’s headliner, Portland-based folk-rock band The Decemberists.
“Hi,” he said to the small crowd of folks standing up close to watch him. “We’re The Decemberists.”
It was funny.
Later, when introducing his set closer, “Robots,” Mangan implored people to sing along “if by some bizarre chance” they knew the song, and I turned to Kate and said: “Bringing a little humility and personality to the stage goes a long way toward making people like you.”
When I think back on the Schwab’s opening weekend, I keep coming back to that little live-music truism. Friday’s headliner, Seattle pop-rock band Death Cab for Cutie, put on a very good, very solid show packed to the brim with great music. But by the end, I was ready to pack up my chair and head home.
The Decemberists did approximately the same, but did it in such a way that made the show interesting, engaging, entertaining and beautifully, blissfully fun. I could’ve watched them all night.
Before we get there, though, let’s go back to the beginning. Like, way back, to when Central Oregon was created in such a way to ensure frigid, drizzly Memorial Day weekends almost every year. This one was no different; Friday’s forecast was so bad even Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard took notice, using Twitter to suggest warm clothes and an umbrella. “It might be brutal,” he warned.
For a while, it was, though it didn’t keep the crowds away. About 5,200 people showed up Friday night, and those who got there early were treated to an excellent set of reverb-drenched retro-pop-rock by opening band Jenny and Johnny, whose sunny, surfy vibe sort of matched the still-tolerable weather.
The crowd thickened — both in number and in layers — during the second set by the veteran indie-rock band Bright Eyes. By 7 p.m., gnarly clouds had moved in, spitting drops of rain and sending the temperature south. It was uncomfortably cold as frontman Conor Oberst stalked the stage.
These days, Oberst has a seven-piece band backing him that’s proficient and capable of some serious noise, as evidenced Friday by “Road to Joy” and “Jejune Stars,” the latter with its wonderfully wobbly keyboard line sticking out above the mix. But he lost me with his faux-hip-hop moves on the murky “Approximate Sunlight,” and I wandered to the back of the venue to keep warm by holding and then eating a Rico’s Tacos burrito.
I have listened to a lot of Bright Eyes over the past 10 years. Heck, I painted the interior of a house with the “Lifted” album on repeat for days. But his angst just doesn’t resonate with me like it once did.
The weather had actually improved by 8:10 p.m., when Death Cab for Cutie took the stage dressed all in dreary shades of navy, gray and black. They spent the next two hours pumping out quick, bouncy tunes and slower, atmospheric jams with alarming efficiency. The stats: 24 songs in just over 100 minutes, with occasional breaks to salute the crowd.
Highlights for me included the hypnotic “Photobooth” and the ultra-catchy “The Sound of Settling” and “Company Calls.” New songs “Underneath the Sycamore” and “Doors Unlocked and Open” represented Death Cab’s new “Codes and Keys” album well, even if the band false-started the former.
But there was also a lull mid-set when the band played a few of its prettier songs. “What Sarah Said” crescendoed nicely as the sun set, and the acoustic “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” incited a major sway session among the crowd, plus close to 100 cameras/phones held aloft, recording every second for digital posterity. And that was just what I counted from my vantage point.
By the end of the evening, though, even Death Cab’s sterling melodies were starting to run together. “I could’ve swore we heard this one already,” said Kate during “Soul Meets Body.” Indeed, as the band wrapped its traditional closer, “Transatlanticism,” my mind was already walking home.
On Sunday, after Mangan’s likable performance — replete with French horn, trumpet and cacophony! — the Mexican acoustic-guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela played a crowd-wowing set of vibrant, highly percussive instrumentals that had people jumping and fist-pumping along. I didn’t totally love it, but it appeared I was the only one among the 3,700 or so folks there. Oh well. This is clearly a case where it’s not them, it’s me.
Shortly before 8:30 p.m., the reigning kings of Portland’s music scene, The Decemberists, came strolling out. Well, most of them. Colin Meloy was nowhere to be seen, and in his place at the front-and-center microphone was TV star Rainn Wilson (aka Dwight from “The Office”), who feigned like he would lead the band before Meloy appeared and took charge.
I use “took charge” with purpose because there are few frontmen who embody their band’s sound and aesthetic more than Meloy, a bespectacled Montanan who oozes nerdy confidence. Over the next 90 minutes, he almost single-handedly elevated The Decemberists’ set to “best of the weekend” status through his good humor and sense of showmanship.
The band showcased its versatility, jumping back and forth across its catalog but understandably focusing on its 2011 album “The King is Dead.” Sara Watkins (formerly of Nickel Creek) provided strong harmony vocals on “Down By the Water,” guitarist Chris Funk’s pedal-steel playing stood out on “Rise to Me,” and Meloy glanced toward the sky in “Calamity Song” as he sang, “Will we gather to conjure the rain down?”
Later in the set, more “King” songs made their mark. “This is Why We Fight” closed the main set on a high note (it might be my favorite song of the year so far) and “Rox in the Box” actually prompted a gentle mosh pit, almost certainly the first powered by accordion, fiddle and bouzouki.
Other highlights included the gorgeous oldies “Leslie Ann Levine” and “The Crane Wife 3,” the pounding drums of “The Rake’s Song,” and the massive singalong at the end of “Billy Liar,” which, just for a second, made me wish I was several miles upstream to hear all those voices whooshing down the canyon.
Along the way, Meloy messed with us, and we loved it. He chided people for singing when they shouldn’t, read a bawdy message scrawled on the stage, joked about Les Schwab and his “tire mafia,” and conducted an audience-sung mash-up of “16 Military Wives” and The Doobie Brothers. All that fun even carried me through songs I’ve never really liked before, such as “The Bagman’s Gambit” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” a highly theatrical tale of seafaring drama and longtime fan favorite that I’ve heretofore considered clunky.
About halfway through “Mariner’s,” though, I was grinning ear to ear, loving the performance in a way I hadn’t the first two times I saw it. And it struck me just how much difference one guy can make.
Death Cab for Cutie put on a strong show Friday night, but there were no endearing rough edges, no lovable banter. It was an exercise in precision, a tight band playing taut songs just about perfectly. Kind of like listening to a big, loud Death Cab-branded jukebox.
Which is fine, but it doesn’t necessarily engender emotional investment.
On the other hand, Sunday’s Decemberists’ show was a performance, full of panache and personality and, quite simply, fun. A guy with Meloy’s charisma can stand in front of thousands of people and hold pretty much all of them in his fingerless-gloved hands until he decides to let go.
On Sunday night, I didn’t want to be let go. On Friday, I was looking at my watch during the encore.
That’s a big difference.