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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Raucous Decemberists carry rock's banner at Overture Center

Credit:Eileen Joyce

Indie music came to the Overture Center last night -- sort of. Portland, Oregon's The Decemberists returned to Madison, playing a larger venue than they'd originally planned on, and in the process revealed themselves as shameless arena rockers.

When promoters decided in July to move the show from the Orpheum, thanks to high demand for tickets, there might have been concern that a certain sense of intimacy would be lost. And maybe it was, a little. It would be tough to argue, though, that the first half of the Decemberists' performance -- a full-on rendition of their latest album, The Hazards of Love -- wasn't well suited to the space: Hazards is a quasi rock opera, the fairy-tale story of an evil queen, a wicked murderer, and a doomed pair of young lovers.

However clearly the narrative came through (even on record, it's not exactly easy to follow), the theater of the piece made it evident a tale was being told. Against a tree-trunk backdrop, Colin Meloy and the rest of the quintet, joined by guest vocalists Becky Stark and Shara Worden (of Lavender Diamond and My Brightest Diamond, respectively), serenaded, stormed and romped their way through the hour-long fable. And as with any story worth its salt, the villains stole the show: "The Rake's Song" showcased the generally mild-mannered band at their throbbingly nastiest, and when Worden moved out front and center for "The Queen's Rebuke," writhing and shimmying like the best trouble you've ever been in, it was a good bet most of the audience -- male or female, straight or gay -- wanted her to take them home.

What became obvious over the course of the evening is that the Decemberists are not at all the nerdy, highfalutin hipsters they appear to be at first glance. Yes, they sing about dirigibles, but the music itself is deeply tinted with shades of U2, R.E.M., Bon Jovi, and Heart -- driving the point home, they took advantage of having a pair of songstresses on hand to close the set's second, looser half with a ripping cover of "Crazy on You." And for the final song of the encore, the sea-chanty-ish "Sons and Daughters," Meloy got the crowd clapping and chorusing along.

"The message of the song -- I want you to feel it, and I want you to carry it with you," he announced while it played. Meloy was being a touch ironic -- one of the most talented banterers leading a band today, he knowingly referred a few minutes earlier to the "quill pen that I write all my songs with" and his "glass of absinthe" -- but he meant it, too. As rock 'n' roll on the scale of decades past fades away, maybe it's fitting that a band like the Decemberists becomes one of its standard-bearers. They've got the arty ambitions of a cult act, but the inviting hooks and open hearts that make you want to hold your Bic lighter aloft.

As long as you're not in the Overture Center, that is. Openers the Heartless Bastards didn't fare quite as well. Their big sound, about as straight-up as rock gets, would have dwarfed the room over at the Orpheum, and blown more than a few faces off. As it was, they did the best they could, filling the venue with wailing chords and getting some of the audience, drinking beer out of those new sippy cups with gold-colored lids, onto their feet.

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