Before the encore, Adam Turla, singer and guitarist for Murder by Death, predicted fame for the band in another 40 years, at roughly the same rate as Bo Diddley. It's just that sort of humbled reckoning that kept the crowd rowdy and the room toasty at Off Broadway, where the band perspired songs about sin and drinking. (Drinking is never a sin.) And on the second night of a three-month tour, the band drank as much booze as it sang about. Almost.
Odes to booze aren't new for Murder by Death -- its forthcoming LP, Good Morning, Magpie, contains at least two more -- and its set was aided and abetted by a generous, shot-buying audience. Only a few songs from Magpie made the cut last night, however. The title track was both subject and condition: a waltz, a valediction to a lover, and an exhibition of Turla's voice, oaken and whistled. "King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs," in its mellow sorrow, was what a wet cigarette butt outside a greasy spoon would say if it could talk. Not everything worked: A smirky cabaret, "You Don't Miss Twice (When You're Shaving With a Knife)" meandered and plodded. No matter the song, though, Sarah Balliet sliced and carved with the sharp edge of her cello. That instrument often ripened a melody, at great benefit, into a mood of black dread.
The Bloomington, Indiana, band is sometimes described as country noir, a sound perhaps amenable to cattle mutilations or romancing a RealDoll. And honky-tonk signifiers -- sagebrush vocals, hoof-clop rhythm, lyrics about loss and loneliness -- metalled each song. But Murder by Death's sound can also clobber with adrenaline. Cherry-picked pleasers -- from "Comin' Home" to "Brother" to "Ash" -- all showed blood on their teeth, songs wrung by fear and sparked by fight. While the band's performance was satisfying, the pleasures were parochial, restricted to drinking ballads and obdurate rockers. But maybe that's enough. It was for Bo Diddley.
If a fogbank of sweat mist hung around the ceiling by the end of the night, it started to cloud when Ha Ha Tonka jumped on stage. Springfield boys gee-whizzing their good fortune and well-wishing the Cardinals would have been enough to carry any St. Louis crowd (which Ha Ha Tonka did, smartly). The band also played its bestomped indie rock with a cheeky exuberance and heart-crossed assurance usually found in revival tents or fitness contests. To single out any of the band members would be foolish; here were four guys umbilically attached and congenitally energized. Had there been a coin toss, Ha Ha Tonka could have headlined.
New York's Linfinity began the show with "Southern Belles," from its debut LP, Martian's Bloom. Its set owed as much to Arcade Fire as it did to Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), except bandleader Dylan Von Wagner's theatrics verged on hammy and his voice bordered on milquetoast. And besides that, Linfinity had no real stage lighting, which, by choice or not, contributed to the recessed quality of the set. Watching Ha Ha Tonka for a while wouldn't hurt.