A bluegrass band selling out the Brixton Academy? That’s right, but this is the Canadian acoustic four piece The Dead South, so add punk, rock and folk, all at a furious pace. It does not take long to understand why they are called, “The Mumfords’ evil twins.” Visually they exude menace and foreboding. Their stage is sparse, a porch light in front of each mic with ghostly arched windows behind. Into this setting ambled four men clad in white shirts, black braces and trousers, wide brimmed hats, looking like a bunch of hucksters walking into town, intent unknown but probably not benign. Without a word they strapped on their instruments as the mysterious ‘Act of Approach’ raised the tension. The crowd loved it when the mournful first notes of Danny Kenyon’s bass cello made way for lead singer Nate Hilts’ rasp, “My baby wants a diamond ring”.
For an acoustic ensemble they make a lot of noise. Hilts and Scott Pringle swap vocals, guitars and mandolin. Kenyon also sings while Colton Crawford combines banjo virtuosity with a thumping kick drum. Americana music is about evolution and adaptation. So what if this isn’t traditional bluegrass. It is bluegrass but fired white hot at the velocity of rock and punk. It was great seeing younger generations getting into this.
“Hello, we are the Dead South,” growled Hilts, then it was straight into ‘Blue Trash’ from last year’s release ‘Sugar & Joy’. ‘Boots’ was another that reached warp speed but throughout the show The Dead South kept their audience on its toes with frequent and very abrupt changes of tempo. That, and a pulsating light show magnified a trance-like effect.
Equally spellbinding were the slower numbers. The atmosphere became heavier with ‘Broken Cowboy’ and the stop/start of ‘Miss Mary’, a macabre tale of uncontrollable rage with the direst consequences, “Oh, Miss Mary, shootin’ about/ Killed a man with illusion and doubt/ Oh”, snarled Hilts with a mix of horror and disdain.
The Dead South are not without humour. It is just dark, very. To a rockabilly beat as mandolin duelled with banjo, ‘Fat Little Killer Boy’ issued a warning to be careful before insulting someone’s size. In ‘Heaven in a Wheelbarrow’ Hilts insisted, “I’m going to heaven in a wheelbarrow. I’m going to heaven yessir” all to a jaunty bluegrass hoedown. But on ‘In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company’ he sounded altogether more comfortable with his prospects down below. After Kenyon’s eerie whistle the song lightened, reaching an almost jazzy feel. The Dead South are masters of juxtaposition.
Closing with ‘Honey You’, they again shifted pace constantly, even allowing space for a singalong with the crowd. Hilts showed a softer side soloing in a voice as smooth as the whisky he must drink, with the first of three encores, ‘Crawdaddy Served Cold’. But to finish this epic show what could be better than ‘Banjo Odyssey’? After all, that pretty much sums up a Dead South show.