Concert review: Rocking, drinking and being merry with Murder by Death, Royal Smokestacks and Strawfoot at Off Broadway, Thursday, December 29
The rigors of touring are not for the faint of heart. The time away from home and loved ones is difficult enough, and when added to bad food, cold dressing rooms and bandmate farts in the van, those endless miles can wreak havoc on one’s soul.
With this in mind, it’s a good idea to develop a set of rules to keep you sane. These rules vary from band to band, but probably at the top of the Ten Commandments of Touring are the following:
Rule #1: Never underestimate the power of a good drinking song.
Rule #2: Especially in St. Louis.
Last night’s Murder by Death show at Off Broadway proved our city’s commitment to the finer art of drinking and appreciation of those who write songs on the topic. St. Louis is a place where the crowd howls at mention of whiskey, and neither Murder by Death nor their openers, local bands Royal Smokestacks and Strawfoot, could disappoint.
Royal Smokestacks played a moody neo-Americana, the kind of music we can’t just call “rock” anymore but it still fits the bill. Their set was mellow, with occasional outbursts of rockabilly vocals, ska inflection, and a swinging cover of “Wooly Bully.” While I found them to be enjoyable enough, like Van Morrison songs, Royal Smokestacks was pleasant but mostly uninteresting to a sober listener (ahem, me).
A shining example of what happens when the kids aren’t satisfied with just one style, Strawfoot opened their set like gypsy punk hooligans and closed it in a dizzying finale of “Churchyard Cough,” a drinking song given credibility, I guess, with an affected Irish accent and fiddle. If this seems like ADD, then it’s the best possible kind because it afforded the presence of accordion, harmonica, violin, mandolin and an upright bass. It could be that I’m just a sucker for skilled dilettantism, but I thought that Strawfoot played a giddily deranged mess of a set, riling up the crowd for a headliner they were clearly thrilled to support.
Strawfoot’s drinking hymns were all well and good, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Murder by Death’s opener, “Kentucky Bourbon.” It takes a certain kind of confidence to open with a drinking song, I think, and guitarist/vocalist Adam Turla’s polished baritone paired with Sarah Balliet’s mournful cello were, like the song’s namesake, smooth and stoic enough to pull it off.
Murder by Death’s second song, the gruesomely funny “You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shavin’ With a Knife),” was indicative of the style the band has adopted since releasing their first truly country-influenced album, “Red of Tooth and Claw” in 2008. Balliet’s cello kept a gothic beat alongside Dagan Thogerson’s hop-step percussion, and the avant-garde result could fit into the background of a Tom Waits project.
Later selections included crowd favorites “Steal Away,” “Fuego!” and “Ball and Chain,” interspersed with newer songs to be potentially recorded in Texas within the next few months, presumably with current label Vagrant. These new songs were introduced as as-yet-unperformed, and while Turla warned that a few were quiet, there were some rowdier selections to come. One of the quieter ones, “No Oath No Spell,” was hauntingly sweet and sad, its turns of melody underscored by that intense cello and saloon piano prompting my friend to comment that if Hollywood ever remakes “Young Guns,” these guys should do the soundtrack. Another new track was “I Came Around,” which Turla said was “about going to a wake for someone we thought was a fucking loser…[but] over the course of getting drunk at the wake, we realized they were pretty awesome.” “I Came Around” was a modern interpretation of “Danny Boy,” a pretty dirge that opened up to a rollicking second verse eventually making way for a tambourine. A tambourine. Now, I’ve been to a lot of funerals where people sang songs and drank in the parking lot, but no one ever thought to bring along a tambourine.
Murder by Death has a sense of humor, which they deployed in clever verse, the insertion of “Radar Love” into their own jailbreak anthem “Sometimes the Line,” and a uniquely sheepish Midwestern way of being rowdy, which involves fair warning followed by a lot of drinking. It’s worth noting, though, that this humor is frequently dark. It’s not always fun to be very drunk, and then, of course, there are all those songs about the Devil. Yeah, the Devil. Two of the most rousing songs of the night were “Until Morale Improves (The Beatings Will Continue)” and “The Devil In Mexico,” both from “Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them,” 2003′s concept album about the Devil visiting a small-scale apocalypse upon a rural town.
Luckily, St. Louis, with its alcohol and Catholic church spires, knows all about both drinking and the Devil, and if we were not made for Murder by Death, then at least in part, Murder by Death was made for us.