At the end of May, two friends and I bought tickets to the Decemberists, hopped in a white Corolla, and went on a not-quite-spur-of-the-moment evening Milwaukee adventure. In about five hours, Milwaukee, which I had only visited in one two-hour late-night burst early last summer, both exceeded and failed to meet my expectations.
1. Rockin' concert! The Decemberists, who I've heard are an absolute delight live, played TWO SETS. In the first, they ran through the full tracklist of their latest album, Hazards of Love, only before taking a brief introduction and proceeding onto another (more "normal") Decemberists concert! That being said, I was done after the first half. Hazards of Love is grandiose and emotive, and I felt quite satiated after the full album run-through. Frankly I could never listen to that CD fully again, so beautifully was it represented on stage. And the stage design! Wavy crepe paper in the background was sculpted to look like trees, adding to the folksy sound of the Decemberists, and representing the story quite well. In short, the Hazards of Love, a bona fide rock opera slash concept album, is the story of the love between Margaret-- a girl living at the edge of the woods-- and a shapeshifter, William, who was saved by the Forest Queen as a child and "given the shape of a faun to inhabit by day" (lyrics straight from the album). The Forest Queen gets jealous (as any crazy mother would), and meanwhile the village rake tries to rape Margaret, and the Queen won't let him leave. A creepy fairy tale within the boundary of folksy indie rock! Except even better: the instruments follow the emotional variances, so the album veers from almost cliche indie or "chamber" pop (the first few tracks) to intense guitar licks so prog-rock-y that it sounds like an even more melodramatic version of Tool (from me, a former Tool-head, quite the compliment).
2. Sweet Canals. Milwaukee has some (i.e. one) pretty sweet river. In parts it looks like Philly, almost. Plus cheese. And cheesehats. And beer. None of which were consumed in the making of this Milwaukee adventure.
3. GEORGE WEBB. Only the best diner EVER! Cheap eats, a man in a chicken suit, and one sassy waitress who never brought me my coffee! Big tips all around. No joke. "Webb's in the mornin', Webb's at night, breakfast at Webb's is always right!" (sung while doing chicken dance in video link)
4. GOD. Well, not really God. A very friendly African American man at the Pabst theatre who found us wandering alone in an abandoned mall (as if malls aren't scary enough by themselves) and directed us WITHOUT ASKING to the Riviera, with a benevolent and all-knowing smile. Plus neon orange vest.
1. Crappy concertgoers, disappointing venue. The concert was supposed to be at Pabst Theatre. After hours of fretting over directions, I seem to have forgotten that Milwaukee is small. Very small. Nearly impossible to get lost in the downtown area. Alas, when we were told the venue was changed to Riviera Theatre, I expected another confused trip around the city, hours of asking strangers for directions, etc. Lo and behold, we walk two blocks and arrive, still early enough to catch the slightest bit of the opening band before being told that we couldn't go to the GA area because we didn't arrive early enough to get "wristbands" and we'd have to sit in CHAIRS. Waaaaay up. And then the usual Milwaukee bros decide to tell us that we can't sit somewhere because the seats are "VIP" for "special people who are going to meet the band." Please. We didn't even get to dance, and NOBODY was singing along. Midwestern pride my butt.
2. No "Mariner's Revenge Song," Colin Meloy? Not even a whale? No whales? What kind of Decemberists concert doesn't have whales?? I WANT MY WHALES!
3. What kind of a city's downtown is dead on a Friday night? Milwaukee. That's what. Also, highways are scary.
The Decemberists: A!