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The Lowdown:

Murder By Death

Matt Armstrong (bass), Sarah Balliet (cello/keyboards), Dagan Thogerson (drums/percussion), Adam Turla (vocals/guitar)

Based In:
Bloomington, IN


Americana, Americana-noir,, gothic rock, indie rock, alternative rock


Musica, Akron, OH

Concert Date:

Opening Acts:
Whisper Signal, Dear Antarctica


Related Articles:

Murder By Death performs live at Musica

Rating: 8 out of 10



May 23, 2011


Murder By Death: Musica, 5/19/11

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Murder by Death performs live at Musica. (l-r) Dagan Thogerson, Sarah Balliet (fg), Matt Armstrong (bg), Adam Turla. Photo by Jason D. Hamad, No Surf Music


“If you give me a hundred dollars I’ll eat a bug right now!” This drunken utterance by Murder By Death front man Adam Turla could be dismissed as nothing more than that, delivered as it was immediately after consuming a slew of drinks provided by adoring fans. But on further reflection it might be a good mission statement for the band. They’ll try anything once, and if it works, they’ll stick with it. This daring attitude leads to bold music, gothic country rock that attacks the senses with fervid energy.

The band brought this energy to Akron Thursday, May 19, headlining a capacity show at Musica on East Market Street. “It was super fun!” said Sarah Balliet, the group’s cellist and keyboard player. “I’m surprised just how close we are to Cleveland!”

“We’ve played Ohio many, many times before,” added Adam, “but we called our agent and said ‘We’ve never played Akron,’ and here we are.” After a layoff of more than 6 weeks, the band opened up a mini-tour with this show, playing songs off of all five of their albums, including some selections that haven’t been aired out in years, but which they dusted off during their hiatus.

Located back from Market Street down a little walking path, Musica has an industrial feel, perfect for a venue in the Rubber City. A huge bonus in this age of smoking bans is the outdoor courtyard, with its exposed brick and stone walls surrounding an open-air rectangle between buildings. Its only drawbacks are a paucity of chairs and the unfortunate placement of a dumpster, which blocks off half the available space and makes the area more appropriate for a short smoke and less inviting for a long chill. Inside, it is dark—as it should be—with the exposed brick theme continuing. The layout is curious due to the constraints of the building, with the stage in the middle of the room and the bar in back. This works just fine when the place is packed, but can make for a lonely walk to the first belly up if you’re early to arrive. Still, the wide stage gives opportunities to get up close on three sides, and an upper tier gives viewers in the back that extra step they need to see over the heads of the crowd. There is both food and coffee in close proximity with Urban Eats located just through an open door at the back of the spectators, and there’s even a wine bar upstairs if you’re among No Surf’s classier readers. As for the Musica bar, it features a decent bottled and canned-beer selection with $3 domestics and $5 micro-brews, and both Brooklyn and Great Lakes are in good supply. The liquor selection is more anemic, with Jack and Jamie being about the only whiskey selections, although Grey Goose is oddly in supply. The biggest plus for the whole place is the acoustics, which are terrific, the sound really filling up the small venue.

The 8:00 show started precisely at 8:17 (on time for indie rock), opening with a one-man singer-songwriter mandolin and guitar act that made me wish I were late. A last minute replacement for the scratched Everything Is Illuminated, Dear Antarctica is based in Canton. What I could make out was a poor attempt at a Joe Purdy impression, with music so light and vocals so whiney and mumbled that they were impossible to distinguish over the disinterested din of the gathering crowd. A complete lack of confidence was apparent. I don’t want to be too hard on the guy, because it was a pinch hitting appearance and it may have been his first or last show (possibly both), but the music, perhaps appropriate for a half-empty coffee house, just didn’t work in a club setting. Nevertheless it was soon over with.

Whisper Signal: (l-r) Daniel Holmes (guitar/manipulation), Eric Baltrinic (drums), Erik Atkins (vocals/guitar), Jaybird Goody (bass). Photo by Alan Pendergrass, No Surf Music.

Next up was Whisper Signal, a local Akron band with a down tempo, art rock/alternative vibe reminiscent of Radiohead. Their sound is full, with soaring vocals courtesy of guitarist Daniel Holmes. The music is somewhat meandering, never seeming to get where it’s going. Everything builds to an unenunciated, drawn-out howl. That may sound like a criticism, but this is actually when the band is best, during these gibberish yelling climaxes. The energy is helped along by bass player Jaybird Goody, who occasionally lets loose with a monster strum that sends his entire (rather rotund) body careening across the stage. If alternative rock is your thing, and especially if you long for the days of Seattle grunge, then they’re definitely worth checking out.

Finally, the headliners emerged to the appreciative applause of the fans huddled together in the darkness. They immediately went into Sarah’s short interlude “Kentucky Bourbon,” which just as on their newest album, Good Morning, Magpie, transitioned perfectly into “As Long as There is Whiskey in the World.” It seems most MDB songs are about whiskey in one form or another, and this one highlights a particular version of the band’s sound, drawing on classic Irish drinking song roots. It would fit right in on an album by the Pogues or Gaelic Storm.

Hitting a particularly expressive note. Photo by Jason D. Hamad, No Surf Music

After that, the band kept right on going with another great one from their latest offering, “You Don’t Miss Twice (When You’re Shaving With a Knife),” featuring a whistled introduction. They kept the energy going straight through the nearly twenty-song set, hitting all the highlights, such as “White Noise” from their latest album, “Spring Break 1899” from 2008’s Red in Tooth and Claw, “Brother” and “Sometimes the Line Walks You” from 2006’s In Bocca al Lupo, and “Until Morale Improves the Beating Will Continue” from 2003’s Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them? There were also a number of live rarities, such as “Comin’ Home,” which they haven’t played in over 200 shows.

Murder By Death is a dish best enjoyed in vivo. While their studio albums are imaginative and well produced, they do little to convey the pure kinetic power of their stage shows. The vigor with which they play cannot be emphasized enough. It’s clear that even after more than a decade of relentless touring, they still enjoy getting up on stage and belting it out. Adam’s sweaty bouncing, Sarah’s expressive bowing, and Dagan Thogerson’s propane and fire percussion (literally on the former, he uses a tank as a drum) are all tied together by the power bass lines laid down by Matt Armstrong. Together, they form a commanding, cohesive whole that transmits the energy straight from performers to audience.

Another attraction to seeing them perform live is the fact that the band has gone through such a transformation over the years that hearing older cuts such as “Flamenco’s Fuckin’ Easy” off of Like the Exorcist, is akin to a reimagining by a totally new band. “Masters in Reverse Psychology,” a personal favorite from Who Will Survive, is another good example, given a harder of edge and wall-of-sound power in its stage incarnation.

Adam’s voice is more unique in person, as well. For a skinny boy from Bloomington, Indiana (via Detroit), he can belt a sweet, deep, resonant vocal line that would make a Barry White fan’s ears perk up. Making it even more unique is the high-throaty hint of Jimmy Stewart that comes through the bass undertones. There is nothing about this band that says “typical.”

The only issue to be taken with the entire set was the encore. The band stood on stage helplessly for several minutes, leading Adam to joke that the next song was about the death of his career after forgetting how to tune a guitar while Sarah played a classical lick on the cello to fill the dead airtime. As the interlude dragged on, Adam started bantering with the crowd about movies, saying he was hosting “bad movie nights” on his porch and asking if anyone had seen the flick “Futuresport,” which luckily most of us had missed. This was all particularly ironic since the 1976 film after which the band is named is not exactly an essential classic, despite a powerhouse cast. Even when it finally got going the encore was anticlimactic, and I have to question the choice to close with an instrumental, even a cymbal-crashing jam session with a more orchestral than rock feel.

Adam finally gets his guitar just how he wants it. Photo by Alan Pendergrass, No Surf Music

Still, as a whole the show was a smashing success and a great ride, enjoyed by everyone in attendance. A night with Murder By Death is highly recommended when they stop by on their next go around. As for when that might be… “I don’t know,” says Adam, “we’re planning to spend the whole summer writing the new album.”

“We’re touring Alaska, though, which will be pretty cool,” Sarah pointed out, oblivious to the meteorological double entendre. “On the summer solstice we’ll be playing a salmon bake at Denali National Park. Make sure you mention that to make everyone jealous.”

As to that new record, the band is pretty mum. “I like to leave lots of room for editing,” said Adam, “so I don’t want to give too much away.”

He says that he doesn’t know if the album will have a conceptual theme like several of their past works, but that the two songs that are complete do have some similarities. “We’re from Indiana, you know. The songs are about how the Midwest we know is dying, how the farm lifestyle is going away and times are changing. It’s more about industry, but I think you’ve got the same kind of thing going on here.”

Standing in the middle of Akron, he doesn’t know how right he is.

The band hopes to start recording “as early as possible in the fall, maybe September or October.” We’ll be looking forward to the new record and Murder By Death’s next pass through the North Coast.

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For a taste of Murder By Death, buy Good Morning, Magpie on Amazon!
mp3 cd vinyl


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