By Sydney Shaw
Nobody commands an audience quite as effortlessly as Colin Meloy.
Picture this: The Decemberists’ frontman solo on stage at Radio City Music Hall on Friday, Sept. 25, an acoustic guitar in hand. He is spotlighted against the venue’s famous golden curtain.
He picks away at the strings, singing a couple of throwback tracks in his full-bodied baritone (“The Apology Song” and “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” both from 2001).
Then, Meloy cruises into “Crane Wife 3,” the heartbreaking culmination of the story from 2006’s “The Crane Wife.” Based on Japanese folklore, the song details a husband’s terrifying discovery that his wife, magically transformed from a crane into a woman, earned the family’s fortune by pulling feathers from her own skin to weave into cloth.
“She had no heart so hardened, all under the boughs unbowed,” Meloy sings.
Enter Chris Funk, jamming on electric guitar as the song builds and the curtain rises to reveal the rest of the band, bathed in a cool blue light. Meanwhile, Jenny Conlee’s delicate key-playing against Nate Query’s rumbling bass provides a beautiful foundation leading into the second verse.
And here, the band dives into their 2005 album, “Picaresque,” playing “Leslie Ann Levine” and “On the Bus Mall” while reducing more than a few audience members to tears.
Together, the Portlanders set the scene for what would prove to be an evening filled with laughter, harrowing heartbreak and no shortage of surprises.
“We know you have many entertainment options in New York City,” Meloy told the comfortably-seated crowd. “Maybe a regal figure of a certain theology. Or the pope.”
Meloy dedicated “Billy Liar” — a song rife with teen-angst and references to masturbation — to Pope Francis, who was a mile away at Madison Square Garden.
“Of all the popes in history,” Meloy said, “he would be the most likely to chuckle… before I was condemned.”
For the chorus, Meloy split the crowd into three parts and coached each group through a different harmony. He called out those in the front row who refused to sing along and silenced the entire balcony with the wave of a hand.
And just as quickly as the fun diddy began, it ended and melted into a more somber, nostalgic tone.
“Despite what kind of opulent setting we might be in, this should be more of a campfire singalong,” Meloy said before strumming the opening chords to “Make You Better.”
For the first time all night, the audience rose to its feet like a wave, from the front row, all the way back to the upper balcony.
“All I wanted was a sliver to call mine,” Meloy sang. “All I wanted was a shimmer of your shine to make me bright, but we’re not so starry-eyed anymore.”
Funk’s fervid guitar solo electrified the venue so much that Meloy had to commend him after the song ended.
“We’re so proud of Chris. He grew up in Indiana, corn-fed,” Meloy said. “We raised him up from a little turnip.”
The band also teased “Why Would I Now?” from its newest album, “florasongs,” set to be released on Friday, Oct. 9. It is composed of cuts from January’s “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.”
Meloy returned to “The Crane Wife” album to sing about “gangs and warfare,” he said. When the microphone died during “O’ Valencia,” 5,000 audience members took over the vocals for him in a powerful display of loyalty.
The show’s finale was an explosive performance of “The Chimbley Sweep” from the 2003 album “Her Majesty the Decemberists.”
“For I am a poor and a wretched boy,” Meloy belted out. “A chimbley, chimbley sweep.”
The lights fell and the audience erupted into applause. They patiently waited for the encore — “A Mariner’s Revenge Song,” or so they thought.
Instead, the crowd learned The Decemberists had retired that song, as well as their giant cutout whale, at the Shelburne, Vt., show on Friday, July 31.
Shrouded by a thick mist, Conlee began the ominous “Prelude,” launching the band into a 25-minute long block from 2009’s “The Hazards of Love.”
“My true love went riding out in white and green and grey,” Meloy crooned from “The Hazards of Love 1.”
He went on to sing, in order from the LP, “A Bower Scene,” fraught with thrashing guitar riffs and a head-bobbing rhythm, and “Won’t Want For Love,” led by the lovely voice of Nora O’Connor.
Stage lights went all-red for “The Rake’s Song,” a passionate crowd favorite. Meloy plays a widower who feels no remorse after killing his children in order to be rid of the responsibility of raising them.
The six-song suite ended with “The Hazards of Love 4,” the finale of the album in which Meloy’s lovestruck characters, William and Margaret, escape the clutches of the evil Forest Queen, only to face drowning on a sinking ship.
“With this long last rush of air, we’ll speak our vows in starry whisper,” Meloy sang. “And when the waves came crashing down, he closed his eyes and softly kissed her. These hazards of love never more will trouble us.”
The lights fell again, but even 20 songs in, the show went on. The Decemberists returned for a second encore after minutes of coaxing from the crowd.
“I love all 5,000 of you,” Meloy cried. “I want to put you all to sleep in 5,000 little beds, and I would sing you to sleep with this song.”
His lullaby of choice was “Of Angels and Angles,” a return to “Picaresque” and a hauntingly beautiful melody.
“There are angels in your angles,” he sang. “There’s a low moon caught in your tangles.”
The final song of the evening was a sucker-punch to the heart — a chilling performance of “Dear Avery.” The track expresses how parents are affected when their children are shipped off to battle.
“But you were my Avery,” Meloy sang. “Dear Avery, come home.”
With that, he blew a kiss to the audience and left the stage for good — but hopefully not for the last time. After a two-year hiatus, The Decemberists came smashing back to the folk scene with a worldwide tour and two new record releases in just nine months. Until it’s time to flaunt “florasongs” tracks, New York City will eagerly be waiting their return.