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.

Another of those strengths is multi-instrumentalist Scott Brackett, formerly of Okkervil River. Brackett was nearly a band unto himself up there, pitching in on backing vocals, keys, accordion, percussion, and trumpet.

On "Dynamite Mine," he employed a pedal that shot hot sparks into the ceiling and used the contraption to perform the most spectacular Theremin solo I'm likely ever to hear.

Memorable as that was, the set's highlight was "Comin' Home," a raucous clap-along riding a punk beat. The audience danced, waved their hands in the air, and hooted along. It was a real show-stopper.

For its encore, Murder by Death dug out a deep cut, finishing up with "The Devil Drives," the final, slow hymn from its 2006 album In Bocca al Lupo. Turla told the audience it had never been played live before this tour, and the crowd of Houstonians actually shut up and appreciated the grand, cello-heavy song with a reverence rarely seen downstairs at Fitz.

It was all smiles both onstage and off, with longtime fans taking obvious glee in watching one of their favorites in such an intimate setting. Downstairs, upstairs or under the stairs, let's do it again soon.

Personal Bias: The fiancée has had this show circled on her calendar for weeks.

The Crowd: Happy white folks.

Overheard In the Crowd: Not much. It was an engaged, respectful crowd, for the most part.

Random Notebook Dump: On one tune, Murder by Death drummer Dagan Thogerson banged an old propane tank that wore a jaunty pink sash. Turla told the crowd it'd been dubbed the "Steven Tyler propane tank" due to its outrageous attire.

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