Better Than: Any other band playing in New York on a steamy Monday night. (Or possibly even all week? All month?)
Death’s story of rags to more rags is compelling: An African American proto-punk trio of brothers was too much for Detroit circa 1971, which is why the entirety of their discography includes a single recorded in 1974, a 2009 album–compiled from songs also recorded in 1974 and 2011’s Spiritual • Mental • Physical (recordings that predate the 1974 sessions). Cut to a 2009 reunion (sans brother David Hackney, who passed away in 2000) and a 2013 documentary, A Band Called Death, which shone a light on a band whose time had come–finally. Actually, it’s more like the rest of the world was finally ready for prescient but timeless sounds of Death.
Death is alive.
Death’s incendiary live show bore out the newfound interest and kudos in the band who was punk before punk existed. Actually, Death was more punk in attitude and initial inception than in musicality. Bassist Bobby Hackney’s stellar lead vocals–which occasionally ranged into falsetto–and the band’s drum-tight, intuitive rhythms (the Hackney brothers have been in a New England-based reggae band Lambsbread since the early ’80s) were too polished for punk, though the raw power was relentless and contagious.
The two surviving Hackney brothers (Bobby and drummer Dannis) are joined by guitarist Bobbie Duncan in stead of late David Hackney, for a sound, that circa 2013, at least, is an infectious amalgamation of primal, heavy bass-and psychedelic guitar-propelled raw rock, ala another Detroit trio, Blue Cheer. Toss in jazzy time changes, Brit-rock and R&B soulfulness played with an energy and enthusiasm that belied the ages of the now 60-ish players. Songs from the ’70s captured on 2009’s For the Whole World to See were fresh, edgy and transcendent, notably the psychedelic “Rock-N-Roll Victim,” “Freakin’ Out,” “Where Do We Go From Here,” “Let the World Turn” and “Keep On Knocking.”
Finally, Death have a new record coming, and dedicated a new song last night to the memory of brother David, before launching into “Play Time,” which, if it’s a hint of things to come, hints that the old band’s newfound success is no fluke. An encore of their 1976 single (again, recorded in ’74) “Politicians in My Eyes” left the crowd sated, but still wanting more, then rushing to the lobby to buy T-shirts like math students at a RUSH concert.
Unlike another poignant documentary about a hard-luck trio (2008’s Anvil), Death proved they have the goods to look back without anger and move forward with the distinction that marked their initial forays into a genre that didn’t accept them. Death with dignity, indeed.
Critical Bias: None. Truly. Based solely on the buzz behind the movie and band I decided to check out the trio; I was a Death virgin upon entering Le Poisson Rouge. I left a fan.
Overheard: “No one in the mosh pit was born when this band first came out.”
Bonus Brain Fart: You missed this gig, watch the movie!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 2, 2013