Murder by Death live at the Middle East Downstairs, February 7, 2009
"Turn down the bass!" a well-meaning fan finally yelled last Saturday night, about a half-hour into Murder by Death's sold-out performance downstairs at the Middle East. He might as well have shouted, "Go home!" The night proved, as none of their four albums do, that this gothic chamber-rock quartet are all about the low register.
On their 2008 Vagrant debut, Red of Tooth and Claw, bassist Matt Armstrong remains mostly understated as Murder by Death earn their frequent comparisons with Cash and Cave. But live, with Adam Turla's bellowing vocals setting the tune and Sarah Balliet's cello offering counterpoint, this Bloomington (Indiana) band sounded as if they had spent the decade perfecting a private version of early-'90s alt-rock growl. It brought to mind the Afghan Whigs' deep roil (if also the Crash Test Dummies' sleepy sway).
If anything, the concept for this month-long tour risked somnambulism — a song-by-song performance of Red of Tooth and Claw and 2003's Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?, both from the band's "Desert Series." But encouraged by a crowd full of bearded devotees and their tolerant girlfriends, Turla grew more animated as the hour-and-45-minute set wore on, giving effusive thanks to his exploding Boston fan base, explaining a couple of his gnomic lyrics ("This song is about the worst kind of zombie: the child zombie. They're not cute."), even telling a questionable joke ("What's brown and rhymes with snoop? Dr. Dre . . . That's comedy!"). True, several of those girlfriends could be seen leaving before the night's end, but by then the front rows had set to moshing as the cello moaned and Turla sang one more about "fire and the devil and shit."
Earlier in the evening, Fake Problems, from Naples, Florida, did straightforward justice to Murder by Death's goth 'n' western concept, and the Builders and the Butchers, from Portland, Oregon, did it one better with a dark and propulsive performance that could have been the Pixies meeting Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk.
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