For a band that has played in a haunted hotel on New Year’s Eve, The Echoplex on a Friday night seems like a tame environment for Murder By Death. And even though it’s basically located under a bridge, the hanging disco ball and well lit stage took out some of the mysticism, but replaced it with killer acoustics and almost zero barrier between the band and their die-hard fans.
Opener Tim Barry did more than his job, as the former vocalist for Avail picked up his six string acoustic and went to work cranking out folk tunes while wearing his home state of Virginia on his rolled up sleeves. Each song was supremely personal, whether it be the apology song he wrote after forgetting his wedding anniversary, or the tale of Gabriel Prosser, a revolutionary slave and blacksmith who fought to take back his freedom and eventually had his burying place covered in concrete to harbor a parking lot. Suffice to say, Barry was not having that, and his powerful song was a testament to the man’s passion. He ended his set with “Avoiding Catatonic Surrender,” a modern drunken singalong masterpiece if there ever was one, piecing together the sad ramblings of a desolate man sitting in a hotel room. All of this was the perfect set-up for another band that trades in classic stories and drunken shanties.
The venue’s projector kicked on before the main event took the stage. It displayed “Murder By Death” in a font you’d see in a Roger Corman film, but eventually turned to the visual representation of sound waves, something singer Adam Turla described as “f***ing weird” that he loved and had to have. As the rest of the band settled in, the crowd was already ready to get started. Maybe it was the late-night set time of 10:30 or the sheer anticipation for one of their favorite bands, but the mood was set from the get go. Cellist Sarah Balliet’s contribution to the band has always helped the group stand out, and her work was as crisp as ever on Friday. Sometimes she plays around the song, adding layers above or below the melody, but some of the group’s best moments come when she’s the anchor and Turla is allowed to strum and pick around her.
Social media has been something MBD has gotten right over the years, actually responding to fan questions and, more importantly, taken requests for upcoming shows. Turla confessed to practicing 50 songs for this tour, in order to accommodate fan favorites, the first of which was “Good Morning, Magpie,” off of their album with the same name. The setlist spanned most of MBD’s career, although with Turla’s evolution as a singer, songs that favor his modern vocal styling took precedent. They were able to balance the slower, more nuanced tracks between the rowdy drinking songs with grace, telling each story with a straight face. And as the crowd’s bar tabs grew longer, the show got more raucous, culminating in nearly two dozen tracks and countless cheers.
Murder By Death always appears primed for a breakout, be it on a festival circuit or within popular media, but performances like this demonstrate how the band’s dedication to a singular feeling fits so well within an indoor and libatious environment. Sure, a daytime set at Coachella would expose them to dozens of thousands more people, but how well does a track like “Spring Break 1899” or “King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs” work if there aren’t people swinging from chandeliers or climbing rafters whilst swinging a mug of ale? For their sake, I hope their continued success only rises and they are able to live comfortably off of their art, the goal of any musician. But for our sake, I hope that lines up perfectly with more shows like the one we saw at The Echoplex, where an intimate group of strangers get together in a small space to celebrate the power and wisdom that is Murder By Death.