Photo courtesy of reverendhortonheat.com.
Goofy moniker notwithstanding, Bloomington, Ind., Murder by Death genuinely conjure the kind of electrified, American Gothic realism that most Americans would like to pretend no longer exists.
Its rock 'n' rural music dances the same Tyborn Jig as spiritual brethren Calexico and the Black Heart Procession, though with a only a touch of the Hispanic lilt. Frontman Adam Turla sounds like he's been singing sin and redemption since the crib -- like, as Tom Waits once said, he "was born in bad need of a shave." And Sarah Balliet's cello groans and wails the fates of doomed Appalachian expats Tom Dooley and Barbara Allen, wherever they may be.
One problem for performers in heavily tradition-minded genres is the often-synthetic nature of their personae. As with the blues and traditional country, rockabilly is a harsh mistress that can make musicians and fans alike slaves to its mythology and iconography. Part of the success of the Rev. Horton Heat is that he doesn't lean on a
concocted bio or image (he got the band together in the hip Deep Ellum
neighborhood of Dallas).
Instead, he welds a hot-rodded, Tex-Mex gallop (witness any of the staples played Saturday: "I Can't Surf," "Loco Gringos Like a Party," "My Indigo Friends") to the aesthetic of a bored and slightly manic punk rock kid who's as desperate for excitement as his farmboy forebears. Then he rolls the dice and comes up all 7s and
The Rev (his mama named him Jim Heath) is also a formidable axeman, his playing all carnie-barker speed and snake oil, and he and the band (drummer Paul Simmons and bassist Jimbo Wallace, who was introduced as "the Michael Landon of rockabilly") kick hard at their material with an attack that looks to Gene Vincent for its style but to Black Sabbath and Motorhead for its ferocity.
Speaking of Sabbath, in fact, Simmons sang a storming cover of the stoner-jam staple "Paranoid," and other cover-ees included Johnny Cash, Frankie Lane and (amazingly) "Greensleeves."
And hey, he's a funny cat, too: when the Heat's menacing flamenco-boogie take on
Lane's "Jezebel" was requested, the Rev laughingly drawled, "I'm grateful to have been able to release over 100 songs in my career. But in the process of doing that, I've killed over 100 billion brain cells, so sometimes I go looking for songs that I've written, recorded, played and enjoyed, and -- knock-knock -- nobody's home."
| Michael Judge, Special to The Star