Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Live: ...and You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

When: 9/19
Where: Music Hall of Williamsburg

There's nothing small about ...and You Will Know Us by the Trial of Dead - not their name, not their sound, not their roster and certainly not their reputation. But when they took the stage at MHOW, they did so with the air of old friends. I don't mean old friends with one another, I mean old friends with their audience. Their level of comfort and camaraderie came without a trace of pretension (which may be all the more surprising from a band with such a pretentious name).

The live band boasts six members, though the core remains founders and songwriters Jason Reece and Conrad Keely. The two have recruited a good cast to back them up. Everyone put on a great show with the exception of the second guitarist, Kevin Allen, who only lurked near the corner of the stage, unmoving in his argyle sweater. Though he is (I think) the band's oldest member aside from Keely and Reece, he seemed like a deadweight.

In complete contrast was bassit Jay Phillips, who built up so much energy he constantly seemed on the verge of doing a backflip. His huge gestures, however, were dwarfed by his huge sound and excellent playing. With Reece often behind drums and Keely restricted by his need to stay near the microphone, Phillips picked up the visual slack.

The band's duelling drummer approach was brilliantly executed with Reece and regular drummer Aaron Ford playing off one another, complementing each other's beats and rarely seeming duplicative. However, when the band swelled to three guitars (i.e. when Reece and Keely both took the front of the stage), the endeavor was less successful. There, the multiple instruments simply sounded redundant - yes, the guitar sound is rich and complex, but I've heard single guitars accomplish almost as much, when played correctly.

Trail of Dead are decidedly uncool, but have proven themselves awesome over and over again. It's nice to see such great music played some regular dudes, not conventional hotties, not pretentious snobs, but just regular, plain-lookin', normal-acting dudes in black t-shirts. And you know this band didn't make it through on some heart-wrenching backstory or by including a teen heart-throb. These guys made it on their music alone, and they still do.

The show was clearly intensely rehearsed - with such big starts and stops and especially with two drummers, precision isn't optional. However, the band was sloppy in other ways. I don't think bands should play their album cuts note-for-note. Songs should evolve over time. However, when the live show abstracts things too much, listeners who aren't familiar with the recorded material have no reference point and miss out. As Trail of Dead blurred many riffs and melodies, I wondered how much I'd like my favorite TOD songs if I were hearing them for the first time. "How Near, How Far" missed its three-note high at the end of each short phrase in the verse. This little ah-ay-ah has always made the song for me, and when Keely repeated leapfrogged right over the melody, I was left frustrated and disappointed.

Still, the show was pretty amazing. The band's good-natured, inviting atmosphere and their unabashed energy made the whole thing memorable. And true to the band's larger-than-life tradition, the set was packed full of so many huge moments that it seemed like its own grand finale - I kept thinking they were making their big exit and a second later they'd start on something even more dramatic. In that way, despite its shortcomings, it was an exciting and rewarding performance.


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