Murder By Death Bring Hard Folk to Vancouver

photo by Greg Whitaker

A spirit of positivity moved throughout the Media Club last Thursday. As they filed in, you could sense that the crowd knew, just knew, that what was to come would be something special.

Opening act Boogieman is an acoustic trio led by Vancouver singer-songwriter Jordon Daniel. If nothing else can be said for them, it seemed they shared this optimism. I don’t doubt their genuineness at all – they seemed like a nice group of guys. But in all honesty it was a pretty comical act, and not in the way it was intended. There was quite a lot of banter from Daniel which seemed rather silly and unnecessary to me. Musically, they were individually capable but not focused. Songs about cannabis and musical shamanism are all well and good if they’re well executed, but when the melodies are so clichéd and the lyrics so heavy-handed, it’s a bit of a mess. I couldn’t help but wonder how many in the crowd were going, “Pfft! I could do that.”

However, I really had to check my cynicism as the night went on, because I saw that the audience was really quite sincere in their support for Daniel and company. The health of a music scene depends on open-minded and appreciative music fans, and I’m seeing signs of life here in Vancouver. The positive energy started to move me as well, and I was ready lose the attitude by the time the second act took the stage.

Ha Ha Tonka are the current touring mates of Murder By Death. They don’t exactly defy genre, but I find it hard to pin down exactly what they sound like. There’s definitely some 70’s rock influence in there, as well as 70’s folk. The guys even look like they belong in the 70’s. At the same time, their retro-ness is sort of harmonized with their modernity, so rather than being a throwback, they live in the now while honoring the past. They set the bar high with their diversity and musicianship, as well as the joyous performance they brought. The songs were catchy, memorable, and easy to sing, so they won lots of points for connecting with the audience. I’d never expected to have the lyrics, “12-inch, 3-speed oscillating fan,” stuck in my head and be happy about it. One of the best things that the retro influence brought to Ha Ha Tonka’s sound is vocal harmony. All four members of the band are also singers, and quite adept at arranging their parts. They even did an a cappella number later in their set. Overall, I was very impressed with how hard this band worked to really earn the favour of the audience, and it only increased the optimism in the air.

Murder By Death was not far removed stylistically, but there was a different spirit here. They are a five-piece band, featuring a cellist and a multi-instrumentalist along with the normal guitar, bass and drums. Normally when you hear cello in a band, it’s used to add tenderness or “beauty,” but this is not the case here. This was a heavy, growling string sound above the already aggressive drive of the bass guitar. Combine that with lyrics and a vocal style which draw from the darker side of folk music, and you have an eclectic yet focused and hard-rocking sound. I honestly can’t comment very much on Murder By Death’s set too much without taking away from its excellence. At a certain point the lead singer mentioned that they had been together for ten years, and while I wasn’t surprised – they had the tightness and maturity to prove it – I was annoyed at myself. Ten years is too long for a band as good as this to reach my ears. Or yours, for that matter.

The crowd left uplifted and satisfied. The magic they had come for was realized in the form of a beautiful connection between artist and audience. I’m glad to have been there.