Murder by Death channels ghosts of country music past

Murder by Death cellist Sarah Balliet performs May 1, 2009 in Billings.
Murder by Death cellist Sarah Balliet performed May 1, 2009 in Billings.

When Murder by Death vocalist and guitarist Adam Turla opened Saturday’s concert with “Ball & Chain,” he channeled his inner Cash, sounding at times like the Man in Black himself.

With songs such as “Ball & Chain,” “My Baby Shot Me Down,” and “Sometimes the Line Walks You,” Murder by Death easily elicits comparisons to the country rocker that shaped the musical form the band draws from, but the band has crafted a masterful blend of wailing cello, vintage country, gritty southern rock and Irish-infused punk rock. Subject matter for their songs rarely strayed from whiskey, death and casualties of love. Turla’s despondent lyrics read as a modern “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” Kris Kristofferson’s forlorn hangover song covered by Cash.

A Detroit native with southern Indiana roots, Turla emitted a sultry elusiveness, his grizzled, smoky drawl growing longer with each shot of whiskey. He donned well-used cowboy boots and had slicked back his dark hair.

Cellist Sarah Balliet wailed on her electric cello, flexing her foot and extending her leg outward, shifting the instrument with her body movements. Injecting the melodious harmonies of the cello, Balliet was also a forceful player, making the instrument bawl, chirp and moan throughout the set.

Bassist Matt Armstrong’s semi-hollow Epiphone bass emitted pure tonal blasts of sound while several songs channeled the Irish roots of drummer Dagan Thogerson.

Turla took the stage solo for an encore performance of “My Baby Shot Me Down” and the band then rejoined him for the epic “Spring Break 1899.” A stranger offered me a shot of whiskey and as we downed the bittersweet liquid to good fortune, the band wailed along.

Of Bloomington, Indiana, Murder by Death is in midst of a national tour promoting its newest release, Red Of Tooth and Claw.

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