By: Jim Welte
O'Death :: 11.21.08 :: Bottom of the Hill :: San Francisco, CA
On their latest album, Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin, Brooklyn-based roots-punk outfit O'Death has added depth to its sound. By drawing from a wider array of influences, they subtly dug lyrics into the subject of overcoming hardship and loss. Melancholy is the album's underlying fabric, and the work has a spiritual foundation to it, too.
But in sketching out the band's live show, you can take that entire last paragraph, print it out and light it on fire. This is a band that subscribes to the theory of instrumental brutality, pulverizing their respective utensils until all hell breaks loose. Nuance gets drowned in sweat. Tone succumbs to blasts of cacophony. Trying to discern context is like putting your ear up against the nozzle of a fire hose.
As drummer David Rogers-Berry said before the show at the Bottom of the Hill, "We like to let it all go on stage." That was abundantly obvious less than a minute into the quintet's one-hour set. As frontman Greg Jamie sang the opening lines of "Adelita," accompanied by Gabe Darling on banjo, a shirtless and heavily tattooed Rogers-Berry leapt up onto his monitor speaker and began pounding out the beat on the ceiling. Before long, all five musicians were hammering their instruments, quickly shifting from quiet acoustic parts like the opening into bombastic passages that saw Bob Pycior on the verge of breaking every string on his fiddle.
That was the case for most of the furious set. This was roots music fueled by punk spirit, and although the instrumentation was pure Americana - acoustic guitars, banjo, fiddle, and even a ukulele - this was no bluegrass-based jam band. This was too dark to constitute a hootenanny. There was nary a solo, and carried a heavy compositional influence from the likes of The Pixies. In fact, the band covered The Pixies' tale of incest, "Nimrod's Son," during the encore.
Dissonance was deliberate, but it was also mixed in with enough soulful gospel harmonies to keep things from flying off the tracks. The band is named after the traditional American folk song made famous by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley's a capella version on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and their own songs feature plenty of similarly haunting gospel chants. Perhaps the most ominous of these was "Down to Rest," in which Jamie somehow managed to make his voice, a nasally, deeply pained whine, sound even more eerie and tortured. Pycior's fiddle lines sounded equally agonized, and Rogers-Berry pounded the skins as if driving demons out of them.
The band closed with what sounded like a secularized version of the Sacred Harp song "I'm Going Home." It was all vocals and percussion, with Hillstomp, a Portland, OR duo that played an outstanding opening set of North Mississippi blues tunes, adding a washboard and a bucket to the mix. The band was all smiles, and it was as if those demons had been driven off, at least for one night.
Go here to read the second installment of the O'Death Tour Journal...
JamBase | Exorcised
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