Logan Square Auditorium – Chicago
With the closing of the Fireside Bowl in the middle of last year, The Logan Square Auditorium has become the lead all-ages venue for Chicago. It got off to a shaky start early on; their relying on a rental sound system resulted in a disappointing show by !!! (Chk Chk Chk) and the usually awesome Stag Party. Having the luxury of being over 21 and being free to be gouged for beer wherever I pleased, I stayed away for a while. I returned sporadically to catch a few shows as things slowly got better, finally coming back this month for Murder By Death. My patience for off-genre warbling has grown thin over the years, so in hopes of skipping over any painful opening act experiences, I did my best to arrive fashionably late. Sadly, arriving late and stopping off at the corner diner for a greasy grilled cheese sandwich only resulted in missing one opener.
I walked into the main room and was greeted with one of the most all-ages crowds I’ve ever seen. I’d had moments of feeling old at shows before, but I felt like I had walked in on some freshman/scenester slumber party. Unfortunately, I’m just far enough out of touch with current scene stereotypes, so I gave up on classifying individuals and just chuckled to myself till William Elliot Whitmore got onstage.
The moment he started singing, I couldn’t see the stage fully, so my first impression was aural. The voice that spilled over the crowd smacked of Jack Daniels and an unknown brand of unfiltered cigarettes. But when I finally got a glimpse of the stage, I saw a bearded twentish guy in a wife-beater. He sat alone, accompanying himself on a banjo of sorts while singing in a gritty, back-porch gospel manner. Everyone seemed to be paying close enough attention, clapping along as he stomped his feet on the stage. His songs shifted around a range of styles, touching on many subsets of the blues. Personally, I like my blues musicians dead, black, and recorded on wax cylinder; William Elliot Whitmore was none of those…but the audience liked him well enough.
Next up was The Life and Times; their shoegaze-y, post-Hum rock, however technically competent, was pleasant but unimpressive. As much as they only merit a sentence or two of this review, I’d check back in with them in about two albums, when they could potentially make something interesting.
After a moderate wait, Murder By Death took the stage. I looked around and was fairly certain that the crowd had thinned a bit between sets. The band opened with “The Devil In Mexico,” the lead track off their ambitious concept album Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left Of Them? The song starts off slow as singer Adam Turla details how the devil is shot in the back at a tiny bar somewhere in Mexico. My old friend Kyle used to always bitch when a band would open their set with the lead track off their album, but I thought the song unfolded with a lovely interplay of guitar, piano, and cello and was a perfect intro to the set, proving that there are exceptions to every little rule.
Next, they launched into the second track, “Killbot2000,” briefly entertaining my fantasy that they might play Who Will Survive… in its entirety. The bouncy song was described the last time I saw them as “the one about zombies.” The inherent charm to Murder By Death is that they can take the campiest of subject matter and craft it into something cool without using any gimmick. The narratives of the song, if put to film would be the worst of b-movies, but they manage to put a distinctive touch to the songwriting that makes it extremely inviting. There’s also a side of the band that accepts the cheesy nature of their subject matter. For example, before the song “The Desert is on Fire,” Turla got out the Flame Guitar, a prop which never fails to get a rise out of the crowd. Playing a detailed flame-shaped guitar on a song that has the word “fire” in the title shows that they can take the cheese in stride. Behind the band, they had strung up a sheet and were projecting clips of old expressionist films.* This embraces both sides, showing that they know their thematic roots whether they’re lampooning or paying homage.
Throughout the set they threw in new songs from their completed but unreleased album. The strongest of them being “Dynamite Mine“. It continues to work on their Indie-Americana bent, singing of how there’s sabotage down in an old coal mine. The song’s a lovely ominous faux-spiritual that builds tension with just the interplay between voice and cello. It also gets bonus points for having a part played with a Theramin, a staple of the B-movie energy MBD so often pulls from.
Toward the end of the set, they dipped into Like the Exorcist, But More Breakdancing, an album full of beautiful, moody songs with out-of-place cheeky names (if you’ve listened to the album, you’ll know that “Intergalactic Menopause” is actually a really pretty song). The smaller, more devout audience that remained was happy to hear “Flamenco’s Fuckin’ Easy,” a song that showcased how Turla’s voice can have a great Tom Waits-ian rasp when he pushes it. The finale of “I’m Afraid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff” shows how Murder By Death’s sound has evolved since the band began. It builds off a distorted drum loop and a heavier guitar line while dealing with mundane lyrics about miscommunication. It worked great as crowd-pleasing finisher to the evening, but it also showed how the band has moved beyond their peers. By striding into the land of old westerns without relying on costumes or other gimmicks, they started making unique and important music, which is interesting without being pretentious, showing that they obviously love what they do.
* I’ve never really found a use for that German Expressionism class I took in college (until now). So, for your entertainment, I’ll list some the movies they used: Faust, Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Night of the Living Dead and some footage of nuclear bomb tests from Bikini Atoll.
Previously published at Loose Record