Just a couple of weeks after my solo adventure to see Gerard Way, I was in Milwaukee with a carful of passengers…sort of. My younger daughter had tickets to see her favorite band, pop-punk princes All Time Low; and my older daughter and I were excited to see a band we’ve liked for quite some time, Murder by Death. By luck, both shows were just one day apart in Milwaukee.
My older girl had discovered MBD on the internet in 2006-2007, and played me their video for “Brother” multiple times. They were different from the other bands she fancied at that time (MCR, Panic! At the Disco and Arctic Monkeys): they used many acoustic instruments and had a cellist. Their songs and sound varied, too. If you were to pick a genre, I guess the best description of their sound would be alt-country. (NB: I hate labels.) MBD specializes in pretty dark subject matter, including what you could call murder ballads.
My older girl and I had seen MBD once before, in Milwaukee back in 2009, when they opened for The Gaslight Anthem. My husband, recently returned to us after 19 months at Fort Dix, NJ, was along for the ride that time, with our then 9-year-old in tow. Sadly, due to my negligence, we’d missed the other two openers that night: Frank Turner (*throws hands up in despair!*), and The Loved Ones. Once we finally made it to Turner Hall, after trooping all over the downtown area, The Loved Ones were playing their last song, and Mom was ready for a drink. I remember watching a group of people set up for MBD who were wearing regular clothes; I figured they were the band’s roadies. Then Adam Turla, the lead singer, leaned into his mic and said, “Hi, we’re Murder by Death, from Indiana.”
Wow…that was unexpected. And they were great. I still recall their amazing and terrifying rendition of the old Sonny and Cher hit “Bang Bang”. Fast-forward to the end of 2014, when we found out they’d be playing in Milwaukee. I asked my daughter, who now lives there, to please get us some tickets, and planned to crash at her apartment.
Murder by Death, Turner Hall, Milwaukee, May 28
Since we’d last seen them live, Murder by Death had released at least three more albums. They’re one of many bands that have embraced the new model for releasing their music: they do it on their own. Their latest album, Big Dark Love, was financed via a Kickstarter campaign. I’d gotten a vinyl copy for my daughter as a Christmas present, and it came with downloads for the music, plus a bonus album’s worth of fan-chosen cover songs. (Note: I suck at downloads; I forget about them all the time, and they expire when they’re included with an album. I’m so old that I prefer to have physical copies of as much of my music collection as possible.)
Turner Hall is an interesting and historic venue. The whole building used to house a recreation complex used by German immigrants in Milwaukee in the mid-19th century. The ballroom is upstairs; the lower part of the building is now a restaurant. The wooden floor (which was the upstairs gymnasium) is uneven from so many years of use; you sometimes have to watch where you’re going. Apparently that’s not the hall’s only quirk: at a They Might Be Giants show a couple of years ago, I heard one of the lead singers remark that the stage slopes downward towards the audience. Which is very weird, if it’s true. In all, though, it’s a great place to see a band: just a big open room with a bar at the back. The sound is actually pretty good, and the sightlines are excellent. 8/10, would go again (and probably will; this was my third visit).
When it came time to leave, my daughter and I decided not to rush over to the show. We weren’t familiar with the opening band, and we knew it would be a little later till the headliner was on, so we had dinner with her younger sister and took our time. We got to the Turner Hall just as the first band was playing their last song, and enjoyed a drink together (she’d turned 21 earlier in 2015).
Murder by Death are not the kind of band that attract very young fans, though my daughter was in her teens when she discovered them. (She has excellent taste.) Their audience is a little older–drinking age and older. So sometimes you get assholes who think it’s okay to act weird (drunk), and we saw a little of that. And the crowd is mostly guys (but not all), so it skews differently from many of last year’s shows. Also, since the music is compelling, but with dark subject matter, the fans are not a headbanging bunch. It’s also not a flashy show. The band members tend to stay in place, rather than running all over the stage. It’s not really dance music, but people do sway and sing along.
And so we did.
I’m sorry that I can’t supply you with more details; youtube footage of this show is kind of spotty. Yes, it’s been nearly a year, and yes, I may have forgotten the details; but I love this band, and I know they put on a great show for a bunch of devoted fans, myself included.
The list below I found on setlist.fm, and with just 19 songs total, I’m not convinced it’s complete. (I should have written that shit down.) In the days after this show, my daughter and I were texting each other: “I just remembered, they played this song!” “They played that song too!” “Oh my God, that means they played like 22-23 songs!” We couldn’t believe how far-reaching their setlist is; they’ll pull from pretty much all of their albums in the course of an evening.
- I Came Around
- Ball and Chain
- A Master’s in Reverse Psychology
- The Curse of Elkhart
- Strange Eyes
- Big Dark Love
- Lost River
- Hard World
- Send Me Home
- Steal Away
- I Shot An Arrow
- Three Men Hanging
- Dynamite Mine
- A Second Opinion
- Until Morale Improves, the Beatings Will Continue
- Comin’ Home
- Spring Break 1899
I do recall one particular moment (other than when two young guys sort of jumped in front of us, then drunkenly apologized): before playing “Spring Break 1899,” Adam Turla announced that one of their crew was having a birthday that night, and that the song was dedicated to him.
Sadly, we didn’t have the chance to meet the band members after this particular show, but we did spend some quality time at the merch table. It turns out that the DIY model of putting out music is a very good thing indeed: all of MBD’s albums, including their rarely-heard debut, Like the Exorcist, but More Break-Dancing, are available at their shows, most of them on cd and vinyl. I was delighted to score a special blue-green vinyl copy of Big Dark Love, the same one I’d gotten for my daughter as a Kickstarter pledge. It was money well spent. And so was the show.