The Dead South, the four piece from Regina, Saskatchewan, whose high energy take on bluegrass has won them deserved plaudits, are back on the road. When last in London two years ago they played to a packed out Brixton Academy. This time it was the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a majestic old theatre on four levels, where The Dead South’s dedicated fans again turned out in force for what felt like a homecoming. The standing room seethed while those above gave the balconies a good shake as all participated in what felt at times like a kind of revival meeting. That sense of cult, in a nice way, was intensified by the many fans who matched the band’s sparse pioneer look of big hat, white shirt, black trousers and braces. These folks looked as if they’d come in from a day in the fields rather than the Central Line to Shepherd’s Bush. They came looking for togetherness and a show of furious intensity. They were not disappointed.
The Dead South have had a few line-up changes but are now back to the quartet who formed the band a decade ago. Traditional bluegrass has branched out into alt-bluegrass, jamgrass and all manner of derivations as many outstanding bands have taken bluegrass in new directions. Where The Dead South have carved their own furrow is in the sheer simplicity of their style that drives in part from their punk roots. Acoustic guitar, mandolin, cello and, of course, banjo, with a kick drum for rhythm is all they need. They look the part with a deep sense of darkness about their lyrics that in some cases come across as almost a pastiche on traditional bluegrass. Whether that is the intention or not (in some songs it probably is), the show is blistering. All four put every ounce of their musical ingenuity and sheer energy into their performance. The stage setup is similarly stark. What look like four stained glass windows are spaced out along the back of the stage with corresponding low light from the storm lanterns in front of each of the four mic stands. The absence of any drum kit, keys or amplification turned the stage into a kind of dark secret meeting place, which in a way, it was.
House lights off and the rendezvous with these mysterious players from Saskatchewan was underway. A menacing banjo abruptly stopped for a tantalising few seconds as frontman Nate Hilts rasped, “My baby wants a diamond ring” in a voice that sounded as if it had been soaked in a vat of whiskey for years. On guitar, Hilts duelled with Colton Crawford’s banjo as mandolinist Scott Pringle and cellist Danny Kenyon harmonised on the chorus. The Dead South were back.
“Hello, we’re The Dead South” announced Hilts politely, if slightly unnecessarily. He was among friends. Thus began a setlist played mainly at ferocious pace, punctuated with precipitous drops of speed, that spanned the Dead South’s three studio albums. A newcomer, if there were any, might have felt rather overwhelmed by the sheer pace as songs could seem to blend into each other. For others, a Dead South show is the perfect way to let off a bit of steam and after a two year furlough, why not? But live, The Dead South convey the incredibly skilled musicianship as they recount the stories, usually bleak, that make their albums so compelling.
‘The Recap’, about a vicious bar fight, opened with Pringle’s gentle picking before the other three blew the bar-room doors off with a string whirlwind. Musically they threw punches at each other to the delight of the audience. Their appearance, the dim lights that blazed intermittently and their sonic swipes evoked vivid images of gold rush mayhem. A Dead South specialty is the abrupt tempo changes. ‘Boots’ started at a walking pace before accelerating to warp speed. These frequent gear changes can distract the attention from the stories being told, here one of total self disgust – “Then you steal my crown/ Before you leave me laying in the dirt/ Take off my boots and give ‘em to the herd”. ‘Snake Man’ came in two parts, again a lurking warm-up before full tilt Hilts threatened, “Oh snake man we’re coming for you”.
By contrast ‘Smootchin’ in the Ditch’, one of the more country leaning songs took a more even pace. Though there was plenty of competition ‘Broken Cowboy’ counted among the bleakest on the Dead South repertoire. Hilts wrung every last drop of regret for a life gone wrong. Another aspect of their show is how they swap instruments and vocals. Hilts and Pringle exchanged mandolin and lead vocals several times. On ‘Deadman’s Isle’ Danny Kenyon alternated between classically drawing his bow across the strings of his cello to playing it as if it was an electric bass guitar.
The foursome take full advantage of the empty stage. From a huddle towards the back they surged forward into ‘Deep When the River’s High’ that culminated in a strobe show to match the string fury. ‘In Hell I’ll Be in Good Company’ had Hilts and Pringle crack open a beer before stepping out and clicking their fingers to Crawford’s funky banjo. Lonesome whistling took this slightly incongruous piece of choreography out before ‘Honey You’ concluded the set with the entire audience singing along word perfect.
The only song from the two ‘Easy Listening for Jerks’ EPs released over the past year was the first encore, possibly the most ghostly version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ you will hear. The cataclysmic ‘Banjo Odyssey’ completed the show. There is not a lot of chat during the show while that feeling of tension never really dissipated. To properly understand why The Dead South call themselves “The Mumfords’ evil twins” go to a show and marvel how punk and bluegrass intertwine.