The hot trend in live music this year is performing a landmark album that came out in 2003 front to back to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of its release. This isn't something that just started this year, but it's more prevalent than ever. This isn't a criticism. Quite the opposite - if an album can still be relevant enough to tour behind after two decades, it's probably pretty good. On top of that, these albums are written in stone, frozen in amber like the mosquitos in Jurassic Park. And while they stay exactly the same, the world and our lives do nothing but change. Time and context can change the way albums are experienced.
So in the 20 years since the release of Murder By Death's sophomore effort Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?, how have things been? Ehhhhh...things have been better (have they?) (let's just say they have). Yes, back in 2003 the US was still in the thick of the post-9/11 Middle East fuckery and there was a lot of anger in general, there were still the last remnants of the patriotic rah rah bullshit WE'RE UNITED sugar rush we all had to cover some of those feelings. Remember when we pulled the statue of Saddam down? That'll teach him to have nothing to do with the planning and execution of 9/11.
In 2023, it feels like most of our conflicts are more domestic than foreign. If we don't tear each other apart with domestic terrorism and civil war, the wildfires and off-season floods might get the job done. The lines between church and state are not just being blurred, but gleefully run through headfirst (man, am I just a ray of sunshine today?).
This is all just to say there may never be a better time to revisit an a concept album about the Devil being shot in a Mexican border town and making it his unholy mission to take revenge on the people who live there. Two decades after its initial release, Murder By Death came to Chicago's legendary Metro to play Who Will Survive... in its entirety with Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace in support to see if the tale of Satan using voodoo zombie magic to exact vengeance still holds up as well now as it did when it first came out.
There's something powerful about watching a performance consisting simply of a lone musician, acoustic guitar, and microphone (and an O'Doul's). With everything but the bare minimums stripped away, it's easy to not just get sucked into a performance, but utterly consumed by it as it's happening. But for one performer to be able to handle being that kind of center of gravity for an entire sold-out venue, simply put they better be really fucking good. Because there's nowhere to hide. No backing tracks. No distortion to cover less-than-stellar lyrics. And luckily for the Metro audience, Laura Jane Grace is that fucking good. From the minute she stepped out onstage to the semi-hometown crowd, the Gainesville-by-way-of-Georgia native and Chicago transplant held the attention of everyone present, singing both Against Me! covers and originals, cracking the occasional between-song joke.
Despite their stripped down nature, all of the Against Me! songs Grace performed on the night held their original angry energy and defiant attitude. And being performed acoustically with no backing band, the lyrics of each song were given room to come to the forefront. A song like 'Transgender Dysmorphia Blues', never mistaken for being a super cheery number, cuts extra deep. The set's closer 'Black Me Out' felt more urgent and pissed off than ever. But even with subject matter of most of the songs ranging from 'angry' to 'really angry', the evening had a positive, festive vibe. Which might have had something to do with a certain song that wasn't in the setlist. "You might have noticed that I didn't play that song," Grace joked with the crowd toward the end of the set, referring to her 2018 semi-tongue-in-cheek song 'I Hate Chicago', "and you know what song I'm talking about."
With the kind of performance that Grace gave on the evening, she could have played that song 9 times in a row and the audience would have absolutely sung along and requested a 10th.
If you aren't familiar with Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?, the story is wild to say the least. To sum it up: the Devil is playing cards in a Mexican border town only to be double crossed and shot. Bleeding crude oil everywhere in the hospital (which people are collecting to sell), Satan plots his revenge, which starts with turning the town's children into murderous zombies and ends with a final showdown between an army of the town's drunken survivors and the unholy army opposing them. The cliffhanger that the album leaves the story on is exactly why the album has the title it does (which is also the poster tagline from 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'.
As you may be able to tell from the subject matter, Murder By Death is very much a band that sounds like the darkest western you've ever seen. Sounding like someone took the weirdness and danger of the first season of Westworld and made it into a band, MBD's gothic Americana mixture makes it sound...well, exactly like the story of a town under siege from the Devil himself. At the center of the Bloomington, IN six-piece is vocalist and guitarist Adam Turla. Being a religious studies and English major, there's no surprise that the story of Who Will Survive... is as vivid and compelling as it is. But just like Laura Jane Grace's set earlier in the evening, the evil subject matter of the album didn't cast a dour mood over the evening. Joined by his wife/founding member/cellist/keyboardist of the band Sarah Balliet, along with drummer Dagan Thogerson, bassist Tyler Morse, violinist Emma Tiemann, and multi-instrumentalist David Fountain, Turla and the band never played things too seriously. I mean, they're performing a concept album about the ultimate evil in the world spending his time getting petty revenge. On tracks like 'The Desert's On Fire' we get lines like 'I've fought off angels with my hands behind my back/I've set the heavens all on fire'. Seems a bit beneath him, no?
But we're also talking about a band that named their debut album Like The Exorcist, but More Breakdancing. Having a sense of humor in the face of a serious subject matter doesn't seem to be a problem. And from the beginning notes of 'The Devil in Mexico' and continuing through the perfectly named 'Kilbot 2000' and 'Until Morale Improves, the Beatings will Continue', MBD channeled their tale of vengeance and retribution with an attitude of someone telling the tale from a distance, having more of a sense of "I know, right???" than active danger. But that didn't take anything away from their whiskey-soaked tale of retaliation and fire, building the album's final track 'End of the Line' into a funeral dirge with the momentum of a freight train. As the string section played the last fleeting notes, the few whiskey sours that hadn't been fully consumed at that point were held defiantly in the air, with every person in attendance at the Metro ready to take up a pitchfork and fuck Satan's shit up.
MBD probably knew better than to release that kind of energy into the world, playing an additional set after the completion of Who Will Survive... consisting of a whopping thirteen additional songs ranging from 2006's In Bocca al Lupo through 2022's Spell/Bound. Saving the fittingly-titled 'Last Night on Earth' to close out the evening, I couldn't help but notice how some of the lyrics mirror some of the insanity seen in the current world.
I saw power, corruption and fools
I saw wild dogs scavenging the schools
While the charlatans sold water to the drowned
The lost instructed the found
Regardless of what direction the world continues to move in, bare minimum I know how to fight against Devils and zombies. And that's information that'll be as valuable now as it will be in another 20 years.
Murder By Death Setlist - The Metro, Chicago 8.31.23
The Devil in Mexico
Until Morale Improves, the Beatings Will Continue
Three Men Hanging
A Masters in Reverse Psychology
The Desert is on Fire
That Crown Don't Make You a Prince
Pillars of Salt
End of the Line
Straight at the Sun
King of the Gutters, Prince of the Dogs
No Oath, No Spell
Everything Must Rest
Pizza Party! (at Gloria Esefan's House)
Last Night on Earth