After spending a month across the pond in Scotland (and, if I’m being honest, seriously contemplating moving there), a breezy starlit night at Wolf Trap provided an easy sway back into District life. The Filene Center at Wolf Trap is in the top five of my favorite venues in the DMV, and definitely my favorite outdoor spot— a partnership between its nonprofit performing arts and arts education foundation and the National Park Service makes the space a unique treasure.
This summer’s lineup has been a banger (and I definitely was bummed to miss more than a few of these shows during my sojourn)— since June Wolf Trap hosted the likes of Belle and Sebastian and Japanese Breakfast; Andrew Bird and Iron and Wine; Steve Martin and Martin Short; Sheryl Crow and Jason Isbell; and Sharon Van Etten, Angel Olsen and Julien Baker. Neko Case and Patty Griffin, Boyz II Men, and The Washington Ballet are still on the calendar for September.
But last week, I returned to Wolf Trap to once again see an old favorite, early aughts indie darlings The Decemberists, whose ballads will forever remind me of college road trips through the New England mountains, long winter days, and writing my MFA thesis. It was my boyfriend’s first trip to the Trap (as the band’s frontman Colin Meloy cheekily referred to the venue), and we met up with a few friends who’d carved out a spot among fellow concertgoers on the grassy knoll.
We laid our blankets on the lawn and, apropos of the moment, uncorked a 2015 bottle of Bandit Queen— The Decemberists’s limited-edition pinot noir blended in partnership with Willamette Valley’s Penner-Ash Cellars winemakers (and featuring label designed by Carson Ellis, Meloy’s talented illustrator wife). As Meloy took the stage with his band, he too, commented on the August evening’s uncharacteristic coolness before a mad launch into “Infanta.” A lesser-known track from 2005’s Picaresque the song’s opening line, “Here she comes in her palanquin” nonetheless set the tone for what was, after all, the theme of the night, an arising. Song number two, “Calamity,” was equally on theme and garnered a quiet chorus from the crowd as we acknowledged, “Had a dream/You and me in the war of the end times…”
While Meloy is the storyteller, the master of ceremonies, The Decemberists have always been an ensemble act. Portland-based Lizzie Ellison played the role of lead female vocalist for the evening, and, as the band’s other members are also wont to do, joined in on various other instruments, switching with ease from keyboard to guitar to banjo. My girl crush Jenny Conlee was of course accordioning away, but if anyone did, it was drummer John Moen who really stole the show.
The set seemed an odd mix of old and new, and while the band humored us with some long standing favorites, (eg. “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” “The Crane Wife 1” & “2”) they certainly did not restrict themselves to the crowd-pleasers, and indeed stayed true to an undertone of apocalypse and reemergence. Meloy teased a few new songs, perhaps hinting at an upcoming new album which would be the band’s 10th over their 20+ years of making and performing music.
In some ways the evening’s performance embodied nostalgia for the world, flawed and all, in its pre-pandemic dumpster fire form. In others, it felt a call to action, to move, to be alive, to want. Meloy closed out the main set with “I Was Born for the Stage,” crooning in his trademark vibrato-esque voice, “And as I take my final bow/Was there ever any doubt?.” And honestly if I were him I would have left it there. The crowd had been subdued the entire evening, not quite heeding the call to consciousness that Meloy seemed hoping to agitate, and by the end many had even started to make their way to the parking lot.
Still, the band returned to offer a parting gift with a brief encore that closed the performance with “Sons & Daughters” and as we departed, dispersing back into the summer night, we could, very nearly believe “here all the bombs/they fade away.”
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