I saw the Murder City Devils for the first time in December of 1997 at the Undertow reunion show in Seattle. Undertow's set is easily the bloodiest set I've ever seen and the first time I saw someone with a freshly broken arm hanging in that sickening akimbo way they do when they're "no bullshit" broken. Up until then my life revolved around Crass records, Hickey and third wave ska. I'm not really sure why I was at that show. It probably had to do with the fact that Derek, the bass player for MCD, worked at the record store two blocks from my house and said I should come check out his band. Undertow was good but I was completely taken aback by what I saw that night from the Murder City Devils. I bought their first album at that show and played it over and over that night when I got home until my neighbors stomped so hard on the floor above me that it made the record skip.
MCD became a really important band to me. A crucial part of my sometimes brutally awkard "growing up" in Seattle. I saw them more times than I can remember for their remaining years and actually got to know them a bit. So I was more than a little curious about what I might see at the Great American Music Hall in SF this month. It's a world and so many years away from my experience with them. I had seen them a few years prior at their first "reunion" in Seattle and although they certainly looked different than they used to (expect more beards and less black than you're used to from them), they played really well. So I wasn't really worried about the quality of the performance but I really wanted to know what the hell was going on with this tour. What does it mean? Are they back together? Should we be expecting new music? What is this? I bore witness to a few of their fights towards the end the first time around and it seemed like some of their rifts might never be bridged and they never, ever struck me as a band that would come out of retirement despite that for some sort of cash grab. I knew there had to be some kind of point and purpose to this tour. Something beyond vinyl reissues and pocket cash. I have absolutely nothing against making money but that was never their prime motivation in my experience.
They played two shows this night because the initial show sold out so quickly they had to add an earlier day show to somewhat satisfy demand. That too sold out very quickly. The Great American Music Hall has a surprisingly low capacity of 600 people. I think they could have easily sold out a larger venue like the Warfield or Fillmore but I'm glad it was in a more intimate place. GAMH is a beautiful club staffed with decent folks. Two real rarities. Anyway...
It pissed down rain from sunup to well past sundown the day of the show. I got there early in the hopes of getting in fast enough to drop $150 on the box set they were selling that night. An insane amount of money, especially considering I own all of their records already, but I know I would have beaten myself up if I hadn't gotten it. I was rewarded with that opportunity and the opportunity to stand outside in the driving rain for 45 minutes before they opened the door for the day show. I got that latter opportunity again a few hours later to get in to the night show. This was not a night to forgot your damn umbrella. I lived in Seattle for six years so I'm used to rain and cold...but that doesn't mean I like it.
At any rate...with the box set checked in at the coat check I was ready for whatever was about to happen. Strangely I didn't see a single face I recognized. I was shocked...and reminded of the "douche bag quotient" that their fanbase took on towards the end of their time together. I never saw them outside of the Northwest so I don't know what it was like anywhere else, but MCD were stalwarts of the all-ages scene in Seattle. They played some 21+ shows, but the all-ages ones always outnumbered them. So they weren't really a "bar band" to me like I think they are to other people around the country. Anyway, like so many bands with lyrics that have anything to do with drinking, the "bros" started coming out of the woodwork for their shows. Getting entirely too trashed, entirely too early and generally doing those things that they do that end up with shirts being ripped off and baseball hats being turned backwards. The day show wasn't as bad as I had seen but there were a lot of people there surprisingly trashed for 6 p.m. in the evening who thought it'd be a good idea to yell to the girl in the opening band Silverghost (Marcie, formerly of the Von Bondies) that she was, in fact quite "doable" and should lift up her shirt. Seriously. I'm not sure if she heard them but she definitely didn't let on if she did. I don't want to give the impression that the crowd was full of assholes, but the ones who were there made themselves known. Back to the band at hand...Silverghost are a two-piece, which seems to be rather popular these days. Just a guitar and keyboard and they sound like a modern cross between Tubeway Army and maybe someone like Berlin. Their inclusion is a little surprising for this tour but also pretty in line with what I'm used to for Murder City shows. Very rarely did I see them with bands that technically "made sense" genre-wise. It was not uncommon to see match-ups like the Blood Brothers, Botch and Murder City Devils at a show back then. I kind of miss that kind of variety in shows. The bands were all different sonically but in some way still made sense together at the same time. At any rate, Silverghost have a 7" out on Italy Records that I recommend if my description of them sounds appealing to you. They were the only openers for the day show which was kind of a blessing. I'm not much for marathon shows anymore.
I know people seem to like it when show reviews have set lists but I decided early on that even though I was meant to write about this show in exchange for my ticket to the night portion that I wasn't going to get bogged down with note taking. I'd rather miss a few minor details than not have fun because I was too busy recording them. At any rate the set was pretty evenly divided between all of the albums, which was a really nice surprise. When I saw them a few years ago they essentially seemed to play the same set they played when they broke up. Heavy on the last two albums and they did not play "Johnny Thunders" or "Broken Glass," two of my favorites and pretty much standards for a Murder City Devils show. Those two songs are now restored in the set list but "Boom Swagger Boom" is now absent. That's just nit-picking though. When they finally come on stage they are visibly a different band than they used to be. They're a lot more "dressed down" than they used to be and as I said before you're going to see more beards than black clothing. You're also not going to see anything lit on fire. Neither keyboard, nor drum set, nor stage. That was a pretty standard piece of their stage show that is now absent. I think you can chalk that up to equal parts maturation and Great White tragedy. I've been to plenty of shows of theirs that probably should have ended with the club being burnt to the ground instead of just the eyebrows of the first few rows. The first three songs of the day show were a little rough around the edges but they eventually got warmed up and hit their stride. I heard a few people around me comment that they were disappointed that Spencer didn't seem to know all the lyrics to the songs. If you've never seen them before that might be a little off-putting. But in all the times I've seen them I have never seen a 100% faithful reading of the lyrics from him. It's just not going to happen. So if you're one of those cats who needs to hear a band live just the way they are on record you're going to be a little disappointed. The set lists for both shows were pretty identical. They did encores for both and other than the inclusion of "Johnny Thunders" and "Broken Glass" there weren't any really shocking additions of any note.
I ended up catching up with one of their roadies Dylan between shows and he got me a pass so I could actually say hi to them back stage and impose myself upon their free beer. Thus, I missed Triclops, which bums me out. I'm not a massive fan but I really wanted to see that voice come out of a human being live on stage. John makes the guy from Mars Volta look like Barry White. At any rate, through a number of blurry conversations with the guys in MCD I heard a lot of really good stuff. Some of which filled in some blanks for me in regards to exactly what was going on with this band and tour. I'll leave official announcements to them if they ever need to come out, but I will say that they're in a "it is what it is and we're seeing what we can see" period right now. They're getting along really well and are enjoying being back on the road together.
In the end, it is different than it used to be but it's not a bad different. It's just different. No one can expect a group of people to stay the same forever. There's something sad about people who never change. As for me, I woke up the next morning with a fat lip for the first time since I was a child. There's something about Murder City Devils shows that attracts stage-divers' errant feet and my face. Thanks Zane. The exact same thing happened at their "final" show just about seven years ago. Except I thought I had gotten my nose broken. Turns out it was just a fracture that I never got looked at and hurt like hell for a month after. Thanks Merchbot (I think). Today my front teeth feel a little loose and that Murder City Devils-sized hole in my heart got filled in a little bit.