Murder by Death used to be the oddball support act on too many tours to count. Some have been really cool, like when they headed out with These Arms Are Snakes, Paris, Texas and Communique. Some, not so much. But the veteran act, who have been blending their mix of alt-country, indie rock and Old Western aesthetics for more than a decade, are seemingly at the point now where they can do a modestly successful headlining tour and thus, take out whoever the hell they want.
The Devil in Mexico
So it wasn't the most insane surprise to find openers Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons and Bloodshot labelmates Ha Ha Tonka playing music that fell rather cleanly into MbD's wheelhouse. Ha Ha Tonka was the more interesting opener of the pair: They played a sort of rousing, southern/country-tinged rock with great, twangy harmonies, and they worked the crowd quite confidently for a first opener. Not too shabby. Also, their bassist looked just like mustache-era John Oates with more Jheri curl. Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons had more of a full full-band, folk-rocking bar room sound, slightly darker at times, but the execution didn't interest me much (or the rest of the audience, seemingly). Chisel claimed to have lost his voice recently, but his singing sounded fine; it was more the songs themselves that lacked direction. I did like when their female keyboard op sang as it gave things a bit of an Eisley vibe.
Early on in the set, Murder by Death claimed to have two purposes with this tour: celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their first full-length, Like the Exorcist, But More Breakdancing, and play a ton of new songs from their upcoming album, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon. Zero complaints here: I hadn't heard many of those Exorcist songs in a long time, if ever, and much of the new material is really, really strong. See, I thought their abbreviated stint on Vagrant yielded merely decent results in both 2010's Good Morning, Magpie and 2008's slightly better Red of Tooth and Claw. But there's a new liveliness and creativity that seems to imbue these new songs, and it's shaping up real well for Bitter Moon, which is looking to be my favorite album of theirs since 2006's excellent In Bocca al Lupo. One new song in particular had a fantastic Celtic-gone-'80s post-punk vibe with mandolin (not to mention a literally sparking theremin at the end). Vocalist/guitarist Adam Turla described the story behind new single "I Came Around": "It's about going to a funeral for someone you didn't like and getting fucked up with her friends" (and, you know, coming around to think she wasn't so bad after all, hence the title).
But first there were minor disasters. During opener "The Devil in Mexico," Turla already busted his strap, with a dude standing on the floor in front helping out and holding up the guitar while Turla finished the song. Good teamwork. After that minor hiccup, the band hit a groove. Cellist Sarah Balliet got to shine on oldie "That Crown Don't Make You a Prince," though she seemed most excited to shout along to tracks from the Vagrant era. And though I think the tribute is long past improvisation, I appreciated Turla nodding to my own classic rock radio upbringing by slipping a little bit of Golden Earring's "Radar Love" into "Sometimes the Line Walks You". After that, the band took shots and delved into a perhaps slightly more inebriated take on "Ball & Chain."
Although Turla said, "We're gonna end this set the way we did 10 years ago" and it wasn't really end of the set, it was cool to get the instrumental "Those Who Stayed" acting as the fake-out. The encore was definitely cool, though: Turla brought out his old flaming guitar for a pair of older gems, with a full-band version of Lupo closer "The Devil Drives" shutting it all down since his acoustic guitar had cracked in half (which apparently happened earlier that night perhaps?).
Whether you're somehow incredibly new to Murder by Death or a long, long-time fan, this isn't a bad tour to catch: seemingly long sets spanning the whole MbD catalog.
Set list (10:46-12:18):
No Oath, No Spell [new]
That Crown Don't Make You a Prince
A Caucus Race
I'm Afraid of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Sometimes the Line Walks You
Ball & Chain
I Came Around [new]
On the Dark Streets Below
You Don't Miss Twice (When You're Shavin' with a Knife)
Spring Break 1899
Until Morale Improves, The Beatings Will Continue
Those Who Stayed
The Desert Is on Fire
The Devil Drives