- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

So maybe Chris Funk, the Decemberists’ guitarist extraordinaire, didn’t jam his way to victory in Stephen Colbert’s much-hyped “Countdown to Guitarmageddon” in December.

For those who missed the episode, the “Colbert Report” host challenged the band to a shred-off after he claimed they had stolen one of his ideas (the “Green Screen Challenge”). When Mr. Colbert “injured” himself on the guitar, however, Peter Frampton stepped in for him and swept the competition.

And though, to most viewers, Mr. Colbert’s bizarre and utterly hilarious duel seemed more than a little rigged (wink, wink), Mr. Funk and crew aren’t crying foul — the Portland-based quintet is too busy flying high over the success of their late 2006 release, “The Crane Wife,” a divinely crafted sonic storybook.

The album takes its title and heavy inspiration from an old Japanese folk tale that frontman Colin Meloy stumbled on a few years back. In the story, a poor man nurses a wounded crane back to health. When the creature later rematerializes on his doorstep in the form of a weaver woman, he unknowingly marries her and puts her to work. Eventually, however, his greed and curiosity get the best of him and he loses bird-woman and bounty alike.

Like the band’s earlier recordings (including 2005’s “Picaresque”), “Crane Wife” spans a neat musical gamut from languid acoustic folk to cool-rocking pop and features highly literate lyrics where scoundrels, damsels and star-crossed lovers dwell.

What sets this Decemberists disc apart from others is that it’s their first major label release. For a group this artistically independent, the shift away from an indie imprint could’ve been disastrous, but, Mr. Meloy says, “We were told that whatever we would do would be great and that they trusted our direction. … I think there was something in the back of my head that told me they might come in at the last minute and try to change it all around, but they didn’t.”

Band members and listeners alike have been grateful for Capitol Records’ hands-off attitude, which provided enough room for the musicians to create what critics lauded as one of 2006’s best albums.

According to Mr. Meloy, the success means the group has to tour more, but they’re not complaining.

The group just came off a nice stint of dates in Europe, he explains, and they’ve been “playing to bigger crowds than ever before, so that’s been great.”

The Decemberists hit the District on Monday for a sold-out 8 p.m. show at Strathmore (www.strathmore.org).

Band of brothers

When Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars were knee-high to a mike stand, they absorbed the music of the Southland like anhingas on the bayou soaking up sunlight to dry their wings — and their father, Jim, an accomplished musician and producer who’d worked with icons like the Rolling Stones and Ry Cooder, made sure the musical sun was always shining.

“My father and his friends were all musicians, and they used to play festivals in [our hometown of] Memphis and surrounding areas,” Luther Dickinson said earlier this month at a press conference at Florida’s Langerado Music Festival. “I remember being on my father’s shoulders at festivals; I remember my little brother [Cody] being just a little babe in arms at festivals — and ever since then, I always wanted to be a musician and just play music.”

After tinkering with their format and band-name over the years, the Dickinsons finally formed the Allstars along with bassist Chris Chew in 1996.

With Luther at the helm rocking slide guitar and singing, and Cody on the drum kit, the band has concocted its own Southern slaw from a list of ingredients that includes R.L. Burnside’s hill country blues, fife and drum master Otha Turner’s picnic parties, and Jimi Hendrix- and Duane Allman-style licks.

Along with several Grammy nods, the trio’s modern blues have gained them a stellar reputation on the jam-band circuit, as well as a few fans in Hollywood; both Snoop Dogg and Craig Brewer have commissioned Allstars ditties for their movies. Mr. Brewer’s latest, “Black Snake Moan,” also gave the elder Dickinson brother the privilege of coaching Samuel L. Jackson on guitar — an experience the musician described as “so cool.”

Whether crafting what the band calls “redneck rock ‘n’ roll” for Snoop or rollicking extended jams for live audiences, the group’s frontman said that their music always has a unifying factor to it. “We’ve been traveling so much for so many years,” he said, “that the music that we play is like our home in a way. Our home away from home … and it’s not just because it’s our music and we’re playing it; it’s because home is a part of the music.”

The Allstars strut their stuff tonight at the Birchmere (www.birchmere.com), where they’ll play an acoustic set at 7:30 p.m.

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