Photos by Chris Gray
You gotta love a band as unapologetic about taking its sweet time as …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. We won’t even talk about how long it took the Austin five-piece to tune its guitars as the modest crowd in Warehouse Live’s studio visibly fidgeted, because that happens. Especially considering the arcane keys of many Trail of Dead songs.
No, where Trail of Dead excels is at the art of crescendo, and building up to their majestic peaks of noise and volume takes time. The further down the mountain they start, and the slower they climb, the more stunning the payoff at the end. That was the case with opener “It Was There That I Saw You,” which seemed almost frozen in place until Jason Reece’s seismic drums came crashing in like the Kool-Aid Man through the studio’s back wall.
Trail of Dead in reverse
Next came a new song, an epic, veryPhysical Graffiti
mixture of Eastern-inflected guitars, plodding – but not dragging – tempos and symphonic climaxes. “That’s the second time we’ve ever played that song live,” frontman Conrad Keely said when the labyrinthine beast finally ended – and indeed, it was listed on the set list as “G C F F,” i.e. the only title it has so far is its chord progression.
Next came another new one, but this at least has a name: “The Bells of Creation,” every bit as grandiose as the title. A slow, tolling piano intro set the tone, and Keely’s voice recalled the Rolling Stones “Moonlight Mile” a little in between the Who-like power-chord explosions of his and Kevin Allen’s guitars. Although Reece occasionally stepped up front to play guitar – most notably on the ferocious “Caterwaul” - mostly it was difficult to fathom how only two guitars could make such massive noise.
Scream, Conrad, scream!
And a word about that. When Trail of Dead came onstage, the room was about two-thirds full. Aftermath was up front taking pictures at that point, and within about ten to 15 seconds after they began “It Was There” – when the song was still relatively quiet, in other words – two or three people walked away visibly wincing, one even going so far as to actually cup his hands over his ears.
It was down to about half full by the time they hit “Will You Smile Again for Me,” done as a stately Mozart march – Trail of Dead is as influenced by classical music as lumbering, heavy rock, and unapologetically so – with a nasty blues undercurrent. Watching the band live can be exhausting – by this point, the couple next to me on the couches at the back of the room were dead asleep. Guess they didn’t forget their earplugs.
This guy didn't seem to mind the volume at all.
The upbeat, chiming “Relative Ways” – far and away the best pop song the band has ever written, and maybe the only pop song its ever written – reached U2-like levels of crescendos and pealing guitar, and showed that Trail of Dead can bring it down as well as it goes up, trailing off at a label barely above a whisper.
After “Stand in Silence,” another banger balanced around a beautifully Brahmsian chord progression, the room was easily less than half full, and to the band’s credit, they never lost an ounce of intensity. They played like they were onstage at Coachella instead of in front of about 40 people – all of whom, it should be pointed out, were absolutely rapt. No disrespect at all to Warehouse Live - although the studio has always seemed a little too sterile for its own good - but it was like watching Led Zeppelin in a high-school gym, in both good and not-so-good ways.
Not your ordinary average merch table - Keely is as gifted a visual artist as a songwriter.
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Trail of Dead’s dilemma is being too pop for the Rusted Shut crowd, where the band shares its roots with the likes of Shostakovich, and too damn noisy for anyone else. Aftermath’s heart goes out to them, but he suspects they don’t care all that much. Besides, it’s kind of cool to be there watching a band actually, physically drive people away.
And after an encore that was so heavy Sister-era Sonic Youth Aftermath thought they were covering “Teenage Riot” for a couple of minutes, the band didn’t seem dejected about the dwindling turnout at all.
“Compared to our last Houston show, this was awesome,” Reece said.
Like Chuck Berry once sang, it just goes to show you never can tell. – Chris Gray