...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead @ Neumos, 03.13.09
Who starts shows at 9pm? Seriously? I walked into Neumos at 9:30 thinking I would be 30 minutes early, and was lucky I got to catch the last two and a half of Midnight Masses songs. The Brooklyn/Austin conglomerate sprawled across the stage as a six-piece, with two drummers (one being Conrad Keely of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead), two guitarists (one being Jason Reece of Trail of Dead), a bassist and singer Autry Fulbright. Midnight Masses swayed and swooned, coming off something like a more southern-fried dark gospel Interpol (read: Nick Cave with less growl) mixed with the some of the world-weariest moments of Bob Dylan. They dripped of confidence and charisma, and played a perfect game of tension and release that never exploded into insane catharsis, but dotted the set with those moments of sweet release. Opening a show is always one of the most thankless jobs imaginable, but Midnight Masses held their own and showed a strength and vision that will only get better with age.
Los Angeles' Funeral Party was up next, and were the hardest band on the bill to figure out. These young, fresh faces were obviously full of piss and vinegar and a little snotty punk attitude, and the band had a lot going for them; a charismatic singer who was obviously unafraid of audiences, and who could shift between singing and a fantastic glass-gargling howl, a guitarist who effortlessly filled the lead and rhythm roles, a solid bassist who worked in tandem with the guitarist, an extra percussionist, and one of the most incredible, ball of energy drummers I've seen in ages. However, something about the band just didn't sit right, sharing the bill with two challenging and visceral bands. Everything about Funeral Party was nice enough on the ears; in fact, it was a bit too nice and a little too familiar. A quick gander at the band's MySpace page shows influences like Eno, Aphex Twin, and Cabaret Voltaire, and have some connections with The Mars Volta, but the band's sound is a bit too consistent through a 45 minute set of songs, and seemed inspired by a much more contemporary handful of cherrypicked sounds (The Killers, The Rapture, the less-challenging moments of The Blood Brothers). Sandwiched in between the eerie tension of Midnight Masses and the sophisticated caterwaul of Trail of Dead, Funeral Party came off as the energetic, eager little brother of the show. For now, they're an enjoyable (but forgettable) dance band with a lot of promise.
Few bands ride the fine line between absolute jaw-dropping greatness and overblown mediocrity as much as ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead. The Austin, TX group has seen it all, starting as a duo (Keely and Reece) playing house parties, becoming a full-fledged band, breaking instruments and noses in shithole clubs all over the US before finding massive success with their third record (2002's Source Tags and Codes), and then following it up with an "eh" record (Worlds Apart) and their ultimate "let's fill this fucking record with piano" LP (So Divided). Thankfully, the Dead have rebooted, started their own label, and made a new record (The Century of Self) that shows a really nice balance of the bombastic Sonic Youth-meets-Who-isms of their first couple records, as well as some of the more grandiose orchestral moments of their last few releases.
I was a bit weary after my last experience with them (Worlds Apart tour), which just seemed devoid of the fervor, anger, and joy of their previous shows, and passed on the opportunity to see them touring with cartoon metal band Dethklok, which just seemed like a giant fucking carnival that didn't suit the band at all. Thankfully, much like their new record, the band seems to have a balance in their live show of the orchestral and the noisy guitar slinging, and the band bashed through a set that visited what would essentially be a greatest hits set ("Relative Ways", "Another Morning Stoner", "Clair De Lune", "Will You Smile Again For Me"), peppered with songs from their newest record that will likely sit on the same shelf as those favorites (a spirited "Far Pavillions", the storm trooper march of "Isis Unveiled", a raucous sing-along with Midnight Masses on "Fields of Coal").
Trail of Dead's shows are perfect in their imperfection, with Keely screaming half of the choruses instead of singing them intelligibly, missing parts and pieces because he and Reece are too busy flailing on the floor or cavorting through the crowd to be bothered to sing. Also, having a dueling drummer set-up can lead to some sloppiness, but thankfully Reece and Aaron Ford kept synced-up for most of the show, and the two drummer set-up added that many more moments of visual explosiveness to an already firework-heavy set. You can tell the band is trying to balance some of their more professional moments (see their later records) with the barn-burning songs that they started writing over 15 years ago, so Dead sets end up swaying between the more pristine, precise, slower moments and the more volatile, ebullient moments. While the set never had any real lulls, it was definitely paced until Reece shot out from behind a stack of amps and launched into the crowd along with "Caterwaul", knocking mic stands over left and right in a screaming frenzy. After that moment, the crowd perked up quite a bit, and the Dead flew through a venemous set of early favorites ("A Perfect Teenhood", "Richter Scale Madness") before ending with "Totally Natural", dragging the three songs into an informal encore that surged with the nervous jitters that make the band seem like they are careening toward death or, at the very least, implosion.
Those are some of the band's most lovable qualities, and it's refreshing to see that they're not afraid to revisit and revitalize them again, instead of concentrating on their more mellow, symphonic side. On stage, drum fills thundered, cymbals crashed, guitars spat out gauzy layers of venomous feedback, giant split-leg rock jumps were done, and I think maybe even a bloody nose may have happened. Off stage, fists pumped, bodies were shoved, flash bulbs popped, and I'm pretty sure a few synapses were melted. People sauntered over to the merch table to buy records, shirts, and Keely's autographed ball-point pen art prints (fucking mind blowing), and I stumbled out the door wondering why the hell I ever doubted these guys.