As The Decemberists prepare to return to the studio in summer, frontman Colin Meloy hits the road for his third solo tour, which made its first-ever stop in Milwaukee Tuesday night at The Pabst Theater.
Spreading slightly more than a dozen songs across a show that lasted about 90 minutes (two-song encore included), Meloy showed why he's a natural for solo gigs. With his band behind him, he's witty but somewhat more business-like than he is when the stage is barren but for Meloy, three guitars, a table with assorted trinkets and quaffs, and an unexplained chair.
He's got the songs, he's got the wit and he's just so damned comfortable on stage.
Kicking off with an old Scottish folk song, Meloy prepped us for a night of punk rock Kate Rusby (and you thought that was Roddy Woomble's job!), singing of lovers separated by the rushing waters of an unbridged river, in that pure 18th century phrasing he loves so well.
But by song number three Meloy was already mining The Decemberists' oeuvre, playing "The Perfect Crime #2" -- from the band's most recent studio set, 2006's "The Crane Wife" -- pleasantly stripped of its Talking Heads-style funky bubble. By now, the crowd was already engaged and more than eager to oblige by humming a prominent guitar part from the recorded version.
However, Meloy didn't play anything like a Decemberists' greatest hits set. "Valencia," also from "The Crane Wife," was about the only song a novice fan might have recognized. Instead, he played a two-part new number that is among those being considered for the next record, according to Meloy, who introduced most every song with a detailed explanation.
Another new one, the unlikely sing-along tribute called "Valerie Plame," reminded us of the lyrical and literary Meloy's ability to get topical. (On a similar note, he discussed the Pennsylvania presidential primary on more than one occasion during the performance.)
He did, however, sometimes revisit The Decemberists' catalog, playing "Apology Song," from the "Five Songs EP," "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade" from "Castaways and Cutouts" and, in the encore, "Red Right Ankle" off "Her Majesty," among others.
When Meloy said his 2-year-old son Hank was outside sleeping on the tour bus, I thought of my 2-year-old sleeping at home and that may be what made "Wonder," so touching to me. It's a lovely, melodic and simple tune Meloy wrote when he learned his girlfriend was pregnant and it's perhaps the best song ever written about the wash of emotion that engulfs dads to be (and probably moms to be, too):
"My darling, what wonder have we wrought here. It's weird and it's wonderful dear. ... And it was only me and you, that made this three come out of two."
For each of his three solo tours, Meloy has issued a tour-only EP featuring covers of a specific artist. This time ‘round it was Sam Cooke (Morrissey and Shirley Collins were the first two) and opener Laura Gibson joined Meloy onstage for a cover of "Cupid."
He ended the night with a cover of Cheap Trick's "Southern Girls," which got the Milwaukee crowd singing along.
With basic lighting, an acoustic guitar and a microphone, Meloy showed us why we love The Decemberists, but why, perhaps even more, we love him.
Gibson, a singer, songwriter and guitarist who is also from Meloy's hometown of Portland, Ore., opened with a 45-minute set that showed off her talents on the nylon string guitar. A subdued but attentive and appreciative crowd -- which nearly filled the lower level and spread up into the mezzanine of The Pabst -- took to Gibson's soft-spoken singing (and between-song patter) and her songs possessed a sweet, rainy day melancholy even when they were in major keys.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.