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The Decemberists and the L.A. Philharmonic make beautiful music together

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Decemberists_lI was watching Coyote Ugly this weekend (What? It was on cable, okay?), and there’s that incredibly lame line at the end that’s supposed to sum it all up in deepish fashion: “What do you do when you realize all your dreams have come true?”

Well, here in PopWatch land, I guess the answer is “blog about it” — because Saturday night I was treated to the fusion of two of my favorite things in all the world, and now that I’ve pieced my mind back together from the shards that scattered all over the floor, I am here to tell you that the Decemberists playing live with the L.A. Philharmonic in front of 14,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl was one of the singularly most transcendent musical experiences of my short, happy existence.

There are a lot of reasons why this show slapped a grin on my face so wide it threatened to block out the sun, and I’ll get into those a bit later. For now, let’s just cut to the chase: If you’ve got a chance to see the Portland indie pirates’ symphonic tour — and if you live near Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta, or Philly, you do — I strongly suggest you seize that opportunity. It’s an experiment that more and more bands are trying, and, aside from feeding this music-lover’s soul, it just might save the life of symphonic music as we know it. After the jump, some musings and my review, complete with on-stage perspective from a member of the L.A. Phil’s trumpet section. Decemberists, I’m yours…

addCredit(“Stephen Lovekin/WireImage.com”)

Obviously, we’re all watching, with much bating of breath, to see how the music industry is going to rebound from this whole what-happens-when-people-don’t-buy-our-product-anymore? phase. But for a small segment of the population, there’s an even more pressing dilemma at hand: What happens when all the people who attend symphony orchestra concerts, you know, die?

Okay, perhaps that’s putting it a little bit harshly, but any visit to one of our country’s fine concert halls will tell you that there’s just not been a real surge of interest from the youth of America, those millions of anticipated kids arriving to take the place of the more elderly symphony subscribers as they slowly but surely move on to the great Messiah singalong in the sky. And the blue-haired clock, God bless it, is ticking.

I may have mentioned this here before, but my parents both play in the Houston Symphony. And while I liked my music a little too loud to pick up the family trade, I still don’t want to see the livelihood of my parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents perish. So, as I am constantly telling my mother, the American symphony orchestra has got to find a way to make classical music relevant to the Ritalin generation, and they’ve got to do it fast. All Clay Aiken concerts aside — my mom said he was very nice, Claymates, so don’t send letters — there’s a real issue when series programmers still think people like Kenny G and Bobby McFerrin are relevant and exciting and should be included in pops programming. Of course, baby steps are taken all the time: The Houston Symphony has a tribute to Led Zeppelin coming up, as well as a night of videogame music. Although to be completely honest, neither of those things sounds like an ideal fit, as I can’t imagine “Black Dog” or the theme music from Super Mario are incredibly thrilling for a classically trained musician to play. But at least they’re more adventurous than squeezing the Neil Sedaka/Burt Bacharach/Linda Ronstadt stone one more time, hoping for just a little more blood. And maybe they’ll bring in some new faces under the age of 55.

Now, don’t get me wrong: The popular survival of classical music is very much a two-way street. Kids have to open themselves up to the beauty of a Vivaldi concerto or the power of a Mahler symphony in the same way they accept the Crazy Frog as “music.” And artists in the popular vein have to open themselves up to the possibility that while Pro Tools is awesome, technology will never replicate the sound created by a real live 52-piece orchestra. This goes double for the folks producing TV scores, movie soundtracks, and Broadway plays. The way to keep orchestral music relevant is to continue to use it, but let it grow and change with the times at hand.

THEREFORE — jeez, it took me a while to get here — I am so thrilled to see more and more popular bands arranging their songs for symphonic accompaniment and making appearances with orchestras in tow. My parents played with Ben Folds earlier this year, part of his tour that mostly remains notable for coinciding with a fistfight in Boston’s Symphony Hall; My Morning Jacket will perform with the Chicago Youth Symphony at Lollapalooza later this month, having previously gone orchestral with the Boston Pops (who deserve real credit for their commitment to fostering these sorts of collaborations). Prior to Saturday night’s show, the L.A. Phil has played with Belle & Sebastian and Bright Eyes, and while musicians have griped in the past that these concerts leave them with little to do but sit in the background and hold whole notes all night, for the Decemberists concert, they brought in a man named Sean O’Loughlin to beef up the orchestra’s participation, including solos and improvisational sections, to make it a truly symphonic event rather than a band with a backing track.

WHICH BRINGS US to Saturday night’s show itself, which was absolutely stellar and woooo-provoking, inspiring a response from the fans that Christopher Still, the aforementioned L.A. Phil trumpet player, called “what I imagine it would be like to stand directly in front of a jet engine turbine. Classical music fans,” he continued, “are definitely a little more subdued.”

I hate to cast aside the opening contributions from Band of Horses and Andrew Bird — both of whom were terrific, and the perfect accompaniment to sunset and a cool, breezy night — but outside of Bird’s always-present violin, there wasn’t much to set either act aside from what one might see at their usual indie-rock venue. The giant stage of the Hollywood Bowl added a certain level of grandeur, of course, as did the thousands of tiered benches rising up the side of the green hill, but ultimately it was the second half of the concert we all came to see. So once the openers cleared away, and a partition was removed to reveal an elevated platform upon which the members of the L.A. Phil, clad in white, took their seats, you could feel a swell of anticipation: Would this, could this, live up to what we all were imagining? Could Colin Meloy’s carefully crafted, eloquently worded, sprightly but almost antique songs sustain the weight of a full symphony orchestra playing underneath? The Decemberists are fond of jokingly collapsing under their instruments — might that collapse happen metaphorically tonight as well?

Not even close. From the opening, nearly inaudible strums of “Crane Wife, Pts 1 & 2,” it began: The orchestra chiming in under the line, “I am a poor man/I haven’t wealth nor fame” with creamy French horns, rendering the saga of this love story between a man and his feathered bride instantly cinematic. Hard to believe it was the same piece of music I originally heard at Bumbershoot 2006 with just Colin and an acoustic guitar; it now swelled to bursting with seafaring flutes, timpani, and a string section comprised unmistakably of dozens of violinists, violists, cellists, and bassists playing in perfect sync. It was not on a loop. It was not three dudes in a studio enhanced to sound like 12. It was music, the way only professional symphonic musicians can play it, and all around me, smiles burst on the faces of the audience.

We moved on to “The Infanta,” and thanks to the bang and thump of the Philharmonic, the elephants and camels of the lyrics came stomping from the stage like an advancing army. “We Both Go Down Together” shook the night under its veranda (boom!), Miranda (boom!). “Odalisque” showed up huge, starting with a lone oboe and ending as The Godfather. The orchestra mimicked birds and ships and mourning maidens; they had handclaps written into their scores, leading the audience in typical rock-show clapalongs turned downright artistic. Even the insulting lyrics of “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” came across as a rallying cry to celebrate, appropriately evoking the Charlie’s Angels soundtrack with its soaring Seventies swing. And so it went, for 11 songs, only three of them (“Perfect Crime #2,” “O Valencia!”, and “Chimbley Sweep”) unadorned by orchestral accompaniment. All the while, the Decemberists could not have broadcast any more joy had they cut their chests open and laid their happy hearts on stage for us to view. “If you ever start a rock band, I advise playing here,” Colin smiled in awe at one point. Later, he’d break into a Bono-esque sprint around the runway that juts into the Bowl’s audience, and ask us all to “indulge him” and hold our cell phones up in the night sky. They looked like stars. Colin (pictured, left, at Bonnaroo last month) compared them to his bedroom ceiling in 6th grade, but I think he was selling it short: Much like the concert itself, that shizz be real. It was gorgeous. My only complaint: I wish it had gone on longer. And: What’s a girl gotta do to get a symphony orchestra to scream like they’re being eaten by a whale?

There were moments, of course, when I felt like several members of the L.A. Phil were staring in confusion (or dismay) at the crazy kids before them. I know my parents, and I know their general impressions of the rock ‘n’ roll; I can only imagine what many of those on stage were thinking as they watched drummer John Moen (pictured, right) prance like a ballerina, or Nate Query roll his stand-up bass around on the stage like a toy. Our trumpeting friend Chris Still, for one, says he had a blast — so let’s give him the last word. “This type of collaboration doesn’t usually give an orchestra much to sink its teeth into, but this one was an exception,” he says. “The high quality of the arrangements and the band made it a fun experience. These types of shows have the benefit of giving rock bands a completely different experience of their music — a live, more fully realized version of the studio tracks their fans love. And it’s nice to expose a different audience to the sound of a full symphonic orchestra.

“But doing too many of these would be like only driving your Ferrari to the corner store. We have an incredibly rich, diverse body of music spanning centuries, and it’s our job to keep it alive while helping new composers add to it. Maybe orchestras can do a little bit of everything — we don’t have to choose between Debussy and the Decemberists.”