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August 17, 2013
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Black Prairie to play Music on the Half Shell

The Decemberists’ Chris Funk says that though his other band, Black Prairie, started out as one, it is no longer a true side project.

“It’s become this machine,” said Funk, from a tour stop in Philadelphia. And it’s been drawing its own fans to shows.

True, four of five members of The Decemberists — bassist Nate Query, accordionist Jenny Conlee, drummer John Moen and multi-instrumentalist Funk — will perform here at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the final slot of the 2013 Music on the Half Shell series. But they won’t be joined by Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy, who took a leave from that group to pursue writing.

Don’t expect The Decemberists-lite Tuesday, Funk said. The Black Prairie project is certainly its own entity, and a fluid one at that. The indie rockers who stepped back to explore the acoustic roots of American music have nearly come “full circle” with new material reflecting more modern influences.

The Decemberists was formed in 2000 in Portland, and shot to the top of the indie charts in part on the strength of Meloy’s lush vocals and wordplay. Black Prairie began in 2007 when the Decemberists members not named Meloy decided to write songs and not merely “arrange,” without ending The Decemberists.

They initially wanted to play only acoustic instrumentals, but after violinist Annalisa Tornfelt sang a few songs, the rest of the group had a sudden change of heart.

And now, after six years and three full-length albums, they’re writing songs with a more driving rhythm. Not coincidently, the album in the works will be the first to feature drummer John Moen throughout the whole writing process, and will be produced by Jack White’s producer, Vance Powell. In another first, all songs on the next album will also feature vocals, Funk said.

Having Moen around has led to a sound closer to The Decemberists. And it’s a direction that just feels right, Funk said.

“We started playing this Led Zeppelin cover one night, and that sparked us to look at traditional American rock, which actually comes from British rock, which itself comes from American music,” he said.

“The lines are starting to blur between folk and indie rock.”

The audiences of the two bands, unfortunately for Funk, haven’t spilled over as much, though promoters and journalists always stress the connection.

“There’s not a lot of Decemberists fans who come to our shows. I wish more would come,” he said with a laugh. “I mean (The Decemberists) are a big band. But we’re not The Beatles.”

One song on Black Prairie’s latest album, “Nowhere, Massachusetts,” comes close to this churning, rambling sound, and it’s one of its more popular songs.

As a “boundary,” Funk said the band will always use acoustic instruments, which will keep its sound from ever drifting too far from the band’s stated mission.

Following the Half Shell, they’ll take two weeks off to enjoy the last days of summer in their home state of Oregon, then they head back on the road for the rest of September. They plan to write the remainder of their next album in October and record it in November.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said.

Funk assured that The Decemberists is far from over. Members plan to head back into the studio in November for an album to come out next year. New songs are already “kicking around” between Meloy and the rest of the band.

The Half Shell will be only Black Prairie’s second free outdoor concert, the other being one for the Portland Parks and Recreation Department.

Funk attended several Half Shell shows when he lived in Eugene.

“We love Roseburg,” he said.

It will be the last show of the 2013 Music on the Half Shell season.

Half Shell coordinator Lani Kimoto, who’s worked with the concert series since 2001, said landing The Decemberists was long a “pipe dream” she’d mention to other volunteers.

“They used to laugh at me,” she said.

When she learned there was a side project within the Half Shell’s budget, she said she worked hard to secure it.

An average Half Shell act costs about $6,000. This year’s most expensive acts were Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, and David Benoit, which cost upward of $12,000.

Glide product ZZ Ward, who played last week, drew the largest crowd of this Half Shell season — more than 5,000 people — and more money was raised by bucket-passing volunteers during her show than any other so far.

Money raised by the volunteers this season will be enough to pay for two acts next year, Kimoto said.

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Jan 2, 2015 04:46PM Published Aug 17, 2013 11:56PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.