It's been just over two years since the Decemberists' "The Crane Wife" was released, and the Portland, Ore., band's next album isn't due for another six months. What better time for a tour? With nothing in particular to promote or preview, they came to the Orpheum on Thursday free of any mission beyond simply showing up and plugging in.
The result was a show that felt loose - at least as loose as a band that casually drops David Foster Wallace references can get. Kickoff song "Shanty for the Arethusa" had the dramatic sweep of a yarn being shared by a denizen of a dockside inn in a 19th-century whaling village. The group also dipped into Edward Gorey territory, indulging in bleaker-than-bleak humor with the raucous accordion skiffle of "The Chimbley Sweep" and the morbid Dresden Dolls-ish "Culling of the Fold," at the end of which singer Colin Meloy mimed hanging himself with his mike cord.
It wasn't until seven songs in that the Decemberists even bothered with their most recent release. Even then, they dove in with a powerful four-song suite that ran from "The Island," with its insistent, asymmetrical drums, to "You'll Not Feel the Drowning," by which point Meloy's art-folky acoustic guitar and Jenny Conlee's organ had cast them as a fluteless Jethro Tull.
Despite many of the songs' medieval/Industrial Revolution trappings, though, the Decemberists remain very much a rock band, from the minor-key yearning of "The Engine Driver" that recalled "Fables of the Reconstruction"-era R.E.M. to the gently chugging "Days of Elaine" and the triumphant "O Valencia!" "The Perfect Crime #2" resembled the Talking Heads playing Bruce Springsteen's "Spirit in the Night," as Meloy jumped around and dropped to his knees while soloing on a gold Les Paul.
Considering a catalog that includes songs like "Valerie Plame" and "16 Military Wives," it came as little surprise that the band took the opportunity to publicly celebrate the outcome of the election two days earlier. Conlee danced a cardboard Barack Obama around the stage before sending it out to crowd surf. And with openers Loch Lomond and a throng of audience members providing onstage vocal support, the Decemberists closed with "Sons & Daughters," a warm song of unity and deliverance that Meloy said was originally written as escapism. Its meaning had changed, he pointed out, but the song remained the same.
In its opening set, Loch Lomond echoed the headliners' signature style minus the rock component, playing baroque shanty-folk songs that variously featured mandolin, glockenspiel, and clarinet alongside acoustic guitar, viola, and the startling vocal range of singer Ritchie Young.