Concert Review: Death ain’t dead!!! But who’s following them in their footsteps?

Date: July 1, 2013
Venue: Le Poisson Rouge (NY)

Review by Dawoud Kringle

Hailing from Detroit, Death is one of those bands whose innovation and fearless trailblazing was lost or ignored by history. They were founded by the Hackney brothers (Bobby, bass and vocals, Dennis, drums, and David, guitar; who died of lung cancer in 2000, and was succeeded by Bobbie Duncan) in 1974, and after decades in the shadows, they return with new music, new life in their classics, and are the subject of a new documentary.

Le Poisson Rouge was stuffed with people anxious to see Death. The noise, crowd, oppressive heat and humidity, and palpable sense of anticipation somehow made for an apt omen for what was to come. I stood near the stage, my 50-something body praying there would be no mosh pit, and thanking Allah for the good sense to bring ear plugs, I waited to witness a lost piece of underground musical history.

Death made a hell of an entrance. Preceded by security, a film crew, and Black Rock Coalition hostess Militia (who regained the crowd with an ostentatious performance of her own), Death took the stage.

The thing that immediately struck me was their energy and precision. These elder statesmen, consummate professionals and skilled rockers played with an energy and exuberance that people half their age couldn’t hope to match. Most punk bands are mere slackers with no vision or real balls. Death are veteran warriors; who combine a killer instinct with real sensitivity and intelligence.

The songs displayed an astonishing spectrum of dynamics and styles. Within their punk sound, one found ska, reggae, funk, metal, and R&B, all wove seamlessly to create a sound that was more than a hybrid; or something bolted on as a mere afterthought. Every song was unique, and they never repeated themselves or allowed redundancy to bore the audience or degrade the music. They mixed older music, some dating back to 1976, with new material. All of it delivered with conviction and good humor.

Bobby Hackney is an excellent front man. He knows how to project himself and how to move an audience. And he, along with Dennis and David, all looked like they were having the time of their lives. The audience felt this, and felt they were part of a special event.

Their set was very fast paced, moving from song to song quickly (I was reminded of how, in years past, I attended a Kiss concert. Even their show wasn’t as well paced a Death’s). This is no jam band, no long solos or deep musical explorations; although I imagine they could handle that with ease. This was friends out on a Saturday night to have a good time.

Much of the lyrics were unlike most punk. There is a wisdom, optimism, and joy that one doesn’t expect from what people call punk. In fact, I dare say that the word “punk” is utterly inadequate, limited, and sterile to use to describe this trio of masters of their musical craft. But when they played something punk, they out punked most punks.

And when they did, my fears were realized. I found myself in a mosh pit. However, I lived to tell the tale.

I don’t listen to much rock music anymore. And rarely go to rock shows. My tastes largely lay elsewhere. But I had a really good time at Death’s show!

Kudos must be given to the legendary Black Rock Coalition (BRC) and Le Poisson Rouge for producing this concert, and in courageously establishing a power base and support system for some of the most talented rock musicians in the genre’s history who, because of the inherent racism of the music industry, can expect little or no support from anyone else.

With that in mind, I’m going to give the elephant in the room a swift kick to the shins. Apart from how new their music was when Death started, the real reason they were overlooked is clear; they’re African American. Because they were a black rock band, black rock musicians being incomprehensible to the music industry (despite precedents going back to the days before Elvis) they had no way to fit them into their idea of marketing demographics; so they were ignored. This is, of course, racism; but it’s also a symptom of an even greater problem; the audience’s willingness to surrender their power of choice over their own musical taste to a corporate oligarchy. Rock audiences are as much to blame as anyone; they allowed themselves to become just as sterile and fascist as the people they thought they were rebelling against in the beginning. The clear result is the degeneration of the music and the industry that grew around it.

And Death were casualties in this pogrom. But they stuck to their guns, and held to their principles, and after over three and a half decades, they’re back with a vengeance.

I must comment on the opening act, Purling Hiss (there was a band before them, The Everymen, but I didn’t catch them). They took the stage with a pitifully attempted roar of feedback that gave way to a Rolling Stones type song and the foundation for a standard post punk vibe. The vocals were not mixed well in the house system, but what I could hear was more of a drugged whine than the kind of raw energy this music needs. As their set progressed, they picked up speed, and struggled to sustain the chaotic energy that is the prerequisite for this music. The guitarist / vocalist played some halfway interesting things here and there, executed with a sedated and unquestioned submission to punk’s greatest weakness: an orthodoxy of incompetence which wears a mask of proletariat humility. Towards the end of their set, they managed to stir up a quasi-Nirvana energy that they would have done well to hit the stage with in the beginning. That said, Purling Hiss’ greatest weakness is their lack of originality. There was absolutely nothing they did – and nothing they are – to make them stand out from thousands of other bands. Their music and performance is a shadow of what someone else did that lacked any real conviction; like teenagers struggling to slavishly imitate their “idols.”

What I truly found puzzling was how, with all the great African American rock bands whom the BRC represents and supports (and who would have profited as much as the BRC itself from the exposure at this high profile gig), why did these guys end up with the opening spot?

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Recommended Concert (& Documentary Film Screening): Death w. The Everymen & Purling Hiss @ Le Poisson Rouge (NY) this coming Monday!!!