I arrived at this free concert July 18 a little too close to the starting time, and saw multitudes of people already sitting in the Pritzker Pavilion seats and out on the lawn. What a crowd. You had the Grant Park Orchestra regulars (including subscribers who got first dibs on the seats), plus a ton of indie-rock kids, teenagers and twentysomethings, and a whole range of other people. I could feel the excitement in the air. This seemed like a reallly cool event. Despite all of the critical buzz and a fan base big enough to fill theaters like the Riv, the Decemberists are not exactly superstars of the sort that you’d expect to pack a major downtown park. Or to play with a full orchestra. How great is it that all of these elements came together for an evening of fabulous music in a beautiful Chicago park? Anyway, I thought I was going to be stuck watching the concert from a position far back, without any chance of getting photos, but I lucked out when I got into the line for standby seats, and ended up snagging a seat in the second row close to the center of the stage. (It helps sometimes when you’re by yourself.) And so I was able to see and hear the music up close, grab a lot of photos and then get even better pictures at the end when the crowd surged into the space in front of the seats.
I’m a Decemberists fan but not a fanatic, but I have to say this concert was one of the best I’ve seen this year, an all-around triumph. The marriage of rock music with classical strings doesn’t always work, but the Decemberists’ ornate songs lended themselves really well to the format, and in those moments when the violins, violas, cellos and woodwinds surged up behind the rock band, it was utterly magnificent. Wow. The performance included the major songs from The Crane Wife plus older song such as “The Infanta,” “I Was Meant for the Stage, “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” and the entirety of the suite from the 2004 Ep The Tain. Colin Meloy was pretty lively for a guy singing in front of an orchestra, including one run into the audience. For its final encore songs (sans orchestra) the band engaged in a little bit of performance art as it acted out and played “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” from Picaresque, much to the delight of the Decemberists fans who gathered in front of the stage to raise their hands and sway back and forth.