Despite band members joining and re-joining in recent years, this four-piece folk-bluegrass band has made it through to see their tenth year, release new EPs, and most importantly, return to the UK to perform a sold-out show at the Shepherds Bush Empire.
With fantastic support from the main support band, The Hooten Hallers, along with Newcastle based Rob Heron & The Tea Pad Orchestra, The Dead South could capitalise on the elation these support bands had created. The Canadians showed their humble appreciation by thanking them, the people who had made this international tour possible and the audience for not forgetting who The Dead South were.
While some bluegrass purists have issues with their sound, it’s the uniqueness of this band’s divergent sounds and use of instruments and past experience of playing music from different genres which has justly earned them international acclaim and several Bluegrass accolades, including topping Billboard’s bluegrass album charts. By opening with “Act of Approach” from their third LP, Sugar & Joy, one saw a bluegrass reinvention of the Violent Femmes classic “Country Death Song”. Across other songs from Sugar & Joy played live at Shepherds Bush, including “Broken Cowboy”, one could see similarities between The Leveller’s early classic “Carry Me” and Leonard Cohen’s later classic “Travelling Light”.
This band has said their strength and ability to function is by touring. Banjo player (and occasional kick drummer live) Colton “Crawdaddy” Crawford describes live shows are the bands’ “main product”. The Dead South proved this across several songs, including “Dead Man’s Isle” with what appeared as spontaneous silent pauses (amidst upbeat plucking of instruments which received tremendous joy from the audience) who thought the song had finished and then continued to raise audience excitement by surprising them with more pauses which earned The Dead South more praises and screams of ecstasy.
For most people who have heard of The Dead South’s music, it will probably be the one song with the video that has amassed over 270 million plays to date, “In Hell, I’ll Be in Good Company”. This song’s ability to connect isn’t solely because of a clever and well-produced music video of a band displaying good humour; instead, it is the song’s simplicity. Just two instruments make up this catchy and infectious anthem: cello and banjo. The introduction only requires a cello. The other three members took an opportunity to sip some drinks before joining cellist Danny by playing the banjo, singing and not forgetting, re-enactment of the dancing from the Orion Paradis produced video.
Ironically the audience began to boo after “In Hell, I’ll Be in Good Company” ended. The band said that the next couple of songs (“That Bastard Son” and “Honey You”) would be their last. As the booing continued to grow into a colossal force, the band had to end the surprise of an encore and say they may play a couple more after a break. The passionate energy from booing like 1984’s daily two minutes of hate against Goldstein was quickly channelled into the merriment of cheering and whistling.
Being true to their word, The Dead South returned and opened with a song from their latest Easy Listening for Jerks Parts 1&2 EP’s: The Carter Family’s “You Are My Sunshine”. The Dead South ended with a song where the lyrics have caused controversy: “Banjo Odyssey”. There were no objections in the Shepherds Bush Empire; just ecstatic elation, dancing, cheering and handclapping to this song with its hypnotic banjo riffs.
The Dead South were able to win over the Shepherds Bush Empire not because of media attention, playing music videos alongside their songs, but rather in their ability to take various musical influences and make them their own. How many rock bands have no drummer? How many bluegrass bands have no fiddler? Few musicians would be able to combine a strapped cello, guitar, banjo and mandolin and create something that would enchant people globally across a spectrum of musical tastes.