Friday Night: Murder by Death at Fitzgerald's

Murder by Death, Cory Chisel & the Wandering Sons Fitzgerald's July 27, 2012

When I discovered that Murder by Death was set up to play the smaller downstairs room at Fitzgerald's Friday night, I was a little surprised. The Indiana-based y'allternative act may hail from a small town, but they've got plenty of big-city appeal.

They've made a name for themselves through relentless touring, successful enough to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the band's breakthrough LP, Like the Exorcist, but More Breakdancing, with a string of 30-plus dates from Pittsburgh to Vancouver. Urban or rural, MBD's audience can be counted on to turn out.

And turn out they did, filling the 35-year-old club's bottom half even before openers Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons tuned up. It was a hot night, and the familiar dampness of a packed-out Fitz show crept in early. But Chisel was quick to remark that Houston's heat wasn't an issue for him.

"Everybody says, 'How do you deal with it?'" he told the crowd. "Well, I'm doing well with it. I like that shit."

The audience seemed to be impressed by that. Chisel and his band play an inclusive brand of alt-Americana that appealed easily to Murder by Death fans. The group is touring behind its new release, Old Believers, and may well have sold a few copies Friday.

Influences from a lot of good old music popped up, from Ray Charles to Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Wisconsin songwriter showed off some Dylan-esque folk tunes solo on his acoustic, but the best material was built around his vocal harmonies with keyboardist Adriel Harris.

The pair sounded especially nice on the Tom Waits cover "Sweet Rosie." By the time they closed with some gospel-inflected country blues, the crowd was cheering each song as if Chisel was the headliner.

At least, that's what it sounded like before MBD took the stage. Murder by Death's crowd is way into them, and the crowd got excited fast. The band rewarded their loyalty with cuts that spanned its entire career, from its debut LP to its forthcoming record, Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon.

Singer Adam Turla's whiskey-soaked baritone is the backbone of MBD's sound. It's an intimate, expressive voice, particularly well-suited to plaintive blues ballads and inebriated shout-alongs. The related (and relatable) themes of drinking and depression twist through the band's catalogue, and both will feature prominently on the new album -- anchored, as always, by that voice.

"We basically tried to take our strengths and put 'em all on one record," said the singer with a grin.

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Nathan Smith
Contact: Nathan Smith