Murder By Death @ the High Noon Saloon
Before I moved to Milwaukee in 2002, driving over an hour to see a decent band play was part of my natural routine (such is the existence of a music lover in Oshkosh, Wisconsin). It’s funny to me now, knowing that there are people in town who are reluctant to drive to Bayview for a show if they live in Riverwest, and vice versa. It’s enough to send a dude into a classic “we walked to school ten miles in the snow uphill both ways” style rant occasionally. Still, as the daily grind of the 8-5 existence has etched itself into my skin over the years, I’m less likely to head out of town on a weeknight to catch a show than I was when I was a 21-year-old college student. That’s how time works, I guess.
Still, I will not hesitate to head out of Milwaukee to see Murder By Death, who A) fall under that tiniest of umbrellas labeled “Americana-flavored bands I actually like;” B) rarely, if ever, visit Milwaukee (their show at Turner Hall last year in support of the Gaslight Anthem being the first trip to our city I’m aware of); and C) in the interests of full disclosure, happen to be pals. That they were playing one of Wisconsin’s best venues—Madison’s High Noon Saloon—on Tuesday night was a convenient bonus.
The band tackled more staples like the brilliantly titled “Until Morale Improves the Beatings Will Continue” (which features the ready-made-for-group-sing refrain “I drink whiskey instead of water”) with the addition of a touring instrumentalist who assisted on accordion, trumpet, and piano, allowing pianist/cellist Sarah Balliet to focus on the moody strings that give their songs such unique atmosphere. Bassist Matt Armstrong and drummer Dagan Thogerson orchestrated a slow build throughout the set, assisted by nonstop audience singalongs and some borderline circle pit action (huh?). The build culminated in a jaw-dropping performance of Tooth and Claw’s closer, “Spring Break 1899.” The ballad of a blackout-drunk outlaw on the lam waltzed to an explosive climax as the stage lights washed over a tidal wave of surging fans, Matt and Dagan driving the entire room over a cliff and onto the rocks below. I’m pretty sure my jaw didn’t make it off the floor until the band came back out for a mindblowing encore of “Fuego” and the instrumental track, “Those Who Stayed,” the opener on their debut, Like the Exorcist, But More Breakdancing.
Murder By Death have the swagger and confidence of a band that’s been touring relentlessly for a decade, with the approachable warmth of small-town kids from Indiana. Hopefully Milwaukee will get a chance to show them some Midwestern hospitality once again next time they come through. While I’ll gladly drive over an hour to see them, it’d be nice to reflect on the experience the next day at work with a little more than four hours’ sleep. Then again, the characters in MBD’s songs are all bleary-eyed, dreamless wanderers, so maybe sleep deprivation is part of the multi-sensory experience that is Bloomington’s hardest-working band (and even when they do play Milwaukee, I end up closing the Blackbird with their bass player, so it’s probably pointless to complain. Pro tip: when MBD does come back to Milwaukee, bring Powers and plan for an all-nighter. After all, they drink whiskey instead of water).