The Decemberists Wail; Peter Bjorn And John Flail: SXSW ’09

Colin Meloy's newly expanded crew set the bar high on the first day of South by Southwest.

AUSTIN, Texas — When the [artist id=”1228709″]Decemberists[/artist], hyper-literate indie laureates of the Pacific Northwest, made the leap to the majors in 2006, they responded to criticism from the holier-than-thous with The Crane Wife, a conceptual long-player based on a Japanese folk tale and stuffed to the gills with proggy jams and planetarium-ready organ solos. The intent, it would seem, was to silence their detractors by making possibly the majorest of major-label debuts.

It’s not clear who’s angered them this time around, but boy, are they pissed. At least judging by their new album, The Hazards of Love, that is.

Because on Wednesday night at South By Southwest, the Decemberists unleashed Hazards upon the masses, playing the album in its entirety to a thoroughly slack-jawed crowd at venerable Austin rock spot Stubb’s Bar-B-Q. This was certainly ambitious. After all, their new album rocks harder and stretches the conceptual angle further than anything the Decemberists have ever done before. It’s less twee folk, more, well, everything else. Which translated into much soloing, some serious riffing and at least one guitar line nicked from Bon Jovi. There were five drummers simultaneously pounding, two ethereal singers emoting and one prerecorded children’s choir.

It was over-the-top, it was theatrical, and it was, to say the least, a rather epic way to kick off SXSW 2009.

Expanded to a seven-piece with the addition of female singers Becky Stark (frontwoman of Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (a.k.a. My Brightest Diamond) — who portrayed two of Hazards’ central characters, the pure-hearted heroine Margaret and the villainous Forest Queen — the Decemberists displayed newfound punch, hammering out downright Metallic chords and skittering Yes-y super-prog on the album’s multipart title suite, and working out knotty rhythms on songs like “The Queen’s Rebuke” (which showcased Worden’s epic pipes). For the sneering “The Rake’s Song,” they employed five drummers, just because … well, because why not? Throughout, frontman Colin Meloy and guitarist Chris Funk traded solos (and smiles), while multifaceted multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee added meaty organ lines and, in quieter moments, somber accordion.

And though their ranks were swollen, the Decemberists were by no means lumbering. Some of their finest moments on Wednesday came when they stripped things down, like the twangy guitar and accordion of “Isn’t It a Lovely Night,” or album (and set) closer “The Hazards of Love 4,” a duet between Meloy and Stark, featuring gently swooning guitars and sparkly chimes.

And as the final chords echoed from the stage, Meloy and Co. hugged, shared a laugh and exhaled. They knew they had walked the musical tightrope and the crowd did too, lavishing them with cheers and applause. It was a brand-new look for the Decemberists — rocking, swaggering and over-the-top — and it was way better than most opening-night SXSW gigs should be. It was a lovely night, indeed.

Of course, across town at Vice, things were going down exactly like they were supposed to on the first night of South By: rather terribly.

Sharing the stage at a “Rock Band”-sponsored shindig with bands like Glasvegas and the Von Bondies, Swedish popsters [artist id=”2017962″]Peter Bjorn and John[/artist] were supposed to be one of Wednesday’s “can’t miss” acts, especially since they were going to be debuting songs from their upcoming album Living Thing. But rather than follow the Decemberists’ lead and go for the gusto, PB&J just crashed and burned, delivering a set that veered wildly between “woefully unprepared” and “annoyingly disinterested.”

They battled through a myriad of tech issues (or at least they tried to), they stopped songs midway through, and when they were playing, it was clear that they’d rather be back home in Stockholm. And when the audience turned on them, they laughed off the boos, which only further agitated the well-lubed masses and led to some rather amazing shouted put-downs (“Play like you f—ing care!” and “This would never happen in a video game!” being the two best).

Oh, and they didn’t play “Young Folks.” Or maybe they did. We sort of stopped paying attention.

Other quick highlights from the first full day of SXSW: A raw and rumbling set from Black Keys’ frontman Dan Auerbach at the Parish, and a massive multiband bonanza at Red 7, featuring much-buzzed lo-fi punk Wavves, lo-fi-turned-hi-fi punks the Thermals and much-buzzed new-gazers the Pains of Being Pure at Heart.

MTV News was all over the South by Southwest festival this week, with blogs, articles and video on all the gigs, the artists and the scene!