Trying to sell my friends on joining me for this show was not an easy feat, mostly because Murder By Death is a band that manages to keep themselves just out of bounds of many traditional descriptions of sound. They’re not quite indie, but they’re not quite rock or punk, either; they can’t really be called folk or country-western, but they also aren’t totally dark Americana rock; and they have many songs that could very well be old stomping drinking ballads, were it not for the frenetic guitar solos and furious cello picking in the middle of the verses. However, they are remarkable at incorporating all of these factors, as well as a host of neighbors, into their work, so a Murder By Death show is one part rock and roll, two parts bouncing and dancing, three parts passionate and furious rhythms and melodies; shake, strain, no chaser — unless you count a glass of bourbon. I had previously seen Murder By Death sandwiched in between a Christian death metal band and a thundering stoner-rock juggernaut, so it was quite a treat to see them take center stage for their 2015 tour promoting their latest work, Big Dark Love.
Before a solid 90 minutes of shuffling boots and furious struts, however, opener Rocky Votolato started off the evening with a short, sweet set of charming folk ballads. The excitable crowd remained still and quiet for most of his set, though many hecklers in the audience who knew his work well shouted out to hear “Montana”, his signature song, after each number he played. Votolato was nonetheless polite, acknowledging, and very grateful to have been given such a place onstage, and such a packed venue to start off his evening. He moved from guitar to harmonica to powerful, soulful voice with ease, and was quite a treat for the ears.
The men (and woman) of Murder By Death, however, moved the energy swiftly from sonorous, wistful tunes into dark, smashing bruisers that got the crowd on its feet, stamping furiously and clapping hands in unison, all mimicking the whirligig pace of singer Adam Turla, who swayed back and forth around his mic like a man possessed. Bassist Matt Armstrong and keyboardist David Fountain traded glances and exchanged melodies, each with brow furrowed in concentration as they churned out the haunting tunes that backed Turla’s manic fretwork, with cellist Sarah Balliet providing the perfect equipoise with her delicate composure. Their movement from song to song was effortless, and though separated by comments, quips and stories from Turla, they cranked through their set with no signs of slowing down, and their journey through their songs seemed to fly by in its speed and intensity.
With seven records under their belts, Murder By Death had a lot of material to draw from, and did so with gusto. Their set progressed steadily from record to record, moving back in time as the night drew on; while they opened with many of their tracks from the new Big Dark Love and their previous effort Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon, they steadily moved into the distant past with crowdpleasers from Good Morning Magpie, Red Of Tooth And Claw and In Bocca Al Lupa, and cranked the energy up a few extra notches with some classics from their sophomore record, Who Will Survive And What Will Be Left Of Them? before ending the main set with the slightly more modern favorite “Comin’ Home”. With so much to pick from, it was refreshing to see many older pieces shamble back to life, renewed with astounding vigor and passion and blending in brilliantly with the band’s newer work. Including the encore, Murder By Death presented twenty songs to their feverishly-excited fans, finishing off the night with “Three Men Hanging” and their classic bruiser “Rumbrave”.
I’ve listened to Murder By Death for nigh unto a decade, and found it a strange experience to watch them follow Maylene And The Sons Of Disaster, who seemed to draw greater energy from the crowd that was otherwise silent until Clutch, the headliner, took the stage. Being a massive fan of all three acts, I was certainly excited to be there, but bummed by the cool reception that Murder By Death received, and again frustrated when I found it difficult to draw friends to come and see them for this show. It turned out, however, that a very random collection of people I knew ended up attending the show, knew all of the words to songs old and new, and rocked out with the best of them. It was quite the treat to see the Indiana quintet fully in their element, and wonderful to see such a wide span of their work played over the course of the evening. Their passion and energy flowed forth, but their musicianship was never mired by it; they plowed through the set with amazing ease, having fun every moment of the way.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2015 Jonathan Pirro