Murder By Death/O’Death: Middle East, Cambridge, MA 4/5/08

I was in need of a gothic, terror-filled country fix, and I had no idea how badly until I caught up with Murder By Death and O’Death—a bill that went down like firewater, heavy with twang and stinking of the apocalypse. Hearing the two play back-to-back one hour sets in the murky lair of the Middle East, well… all that was missing were seance candles and two men with handlebar moustaches declaring a duel after too much whiskey down the gullet.
What O’Death traffics is some kind of catacombs hootenanny: lots of pained howling, boozy breakdowns, and songs that gather steam before exploding into the types of hoedowns, stomps and oom-pah stuff you associate with gypsy punk acts like Gogol Bordello. There are murder ballads (I think). There is paranoia. There is a ukelele involved, when stringman Gabe Darling isn’t conjuring with his banjo. Guitarist Greg Jamie sings half like a punk-poet, half like he’s performing an exorcism. Drummer David Rogers-Berry told a Boston Herald reporter he wanted his kit to "sound more like a tool shed falling down a mountain than a drum set." That’s O’Death defined: so extroverted and impossible-to-ignore that after it knocks you over like a runaway cart in a mineshaft you’re impressed—and somehow, not surprised—by how much musicality they have, too. The hipsters have already taken notice—and so have the savvier festival promoters—so now would be the time to see them.
Murder By Death’s mojo hinges more on its lead singer, Adam Turla. His darkly soulful, curl-lipped baritone means that comparisons to Johnny Cash and Nick Cave are going to follow every facet of his career, but Cash was never this blood-curdling, and Cave’s never this serious. Everything Turla sings is filled with portent; on "Comin’ Home," maybe the best song off MBD’s new album "Red of Tooth and Claw," he offers: "By the light of the moon / I’m comin’ home / Howlin’ all the way / I’m comin’ home / On my hands and knees / I’m comin’ home / I know when I’ve been beat / yeah, I’m comin’ home." Do we want him home? Is he going to hurt people the way he’s been hurt? Is he coming home to collect a blood debt? As the song’s galloping beat kicks in and Sarah Balliet’s strings take over as a counterpoint to the guitar, the mind races, the body bops along, and the listener as a whole both dreads and excites. 
If Turla’s vocals are the focus, then Balliet’s cello is MBD’s X-factor, and it isn’t just the aesthetic juxtaposition of a beautiful woman straddling her cumbersome instrument  across from serious-looking men—Turla, percussionist Degan Thogerson, and bassist Matt Armstrong—who’d look at home in a post-punk act. Balliet’s ominous strains lurked everywhere at the Middle East, and though it would have been nice to have a broader focus on the band’s whole catalog, MBD is right to be this confident in "Tooth and Claw"—its songs are sturdy, layered and powerful enough to carry a whole show, and the foursome probably knows it.
If they didn’t already at the Middle East, what more evidence did they need than looking out at a sea of well-wishers? People were drunk, jacked up and dancing like they were in the middle of nowhere, in a barn, with a raging storm outside, moonshine in the stills, and ghosts in every rafter. It was awesome.

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