DJ Hostettler

Murder By Death @ the High Noon Saloon

By - May 13th, 2010 02:23 am
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MBD’s Adam Turla and Matt Armstrong on stage at the High Noon Saloon Tuesday (image courtesy modern smartphone technology)


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.

What has always impressed me about Murder By Death is the organic nature of their fan base. They don’t seem to get a lot of press, but through years of nonstop touring and honing their unique blend of Southern gothic country-rock, they’ve build a loyal, devoted audience. A few hundred of them packed the High Noon to welcome MBD on the tail end of a six-week cross-country tour that had the band firing on all cylinders. Singer/guitarist Adam Turla wasted no time launching into familiar favorites that kept the crowd swaying and singing along at full volume, knocking out live standard “Ball and Chain” within the first three numbers. Perhaps that’s part of MBD’s mass appeal—they know their crowd-pleasers, and they stick to them. I’m pretty sure that every time I’ve seen them they’ve busted out “Ash,” “Brother,” and “Sometimes the Line Walks You” (all off their best two albums, 2006’s In Bocca Al Lupo and 2008’s Red of Tooth and Claw). At some point mid-set Turla politely asked the audience to bear with the band as they played some songs off their newest release, Good Morning Magpie. As if he had to worry about the crowd losing interest—most of them were already familiar with the haunting title track.

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).

Categories: Review

0 thoughts on “Reviewed: Murder By Death @ the High Noon Saloon”

  1. Anonymous says:

    They opened for Reverend Horton Heat at Mirimar a few years back if memory serves.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Aha! You’re probably right, since Adam said that Tuesday was their first High Noon show since the opened for the Rev there three years ago. Dang, i wonder why i missed that? I hope i have a good excuse, like i was out of town or something…

  3. Anonymous says:

    we were on tour, I think

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