Photography by Randall Colburn
I’ve always found it interesting how seriously people take …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. I guess Source Tags & Codes is, or at least sounds, serious, but anyone who’s studied Conrad Keely’s artwork for more than a few minutes knows that there’s a smirk behind everything the band does. That doesn’t mean their music can’t be great or epic or dramatic. Hell, these things often add to the comedy. Just look at the nipples on that lion.
But for whatever reason, 2005’s Worlds Apart marked a critical backlash toward the band, despite it enhancing everything that people claimed to love about Source Tags & Codes. Maybe the “art” part of art rock suddenly seemed too over the top, more comic book than classical. How dare Keely even think about throwing a couple of New Mutants on the album cover.
So, it was refreshing on Tuesday to see the band handle Source Tags & Codes — an opus praised for its jackhammering melancholia back in 2002 — with a looser-than-expected grip. It’s not that Keely and co-vocalist/drummer/guitarist Jason Reece made fun of their masterpiece or viewed it as a joke when playing it in its entirety. They just treated it as music, nothing more and nothing less.
There was really no other way to do it. Trail of Dead doesn’t currently tour with a keyboardist or multi-instrumentalist who could have replicated the album’s more theatrical touches — the baroque instrumentation, the shortwave radio transmissions — and even if they did, the Empty Bottle’s famously scrappy stage can only hold so much. So, they made do with what they had, the show all the better and more immediate for it. The Reece-shouted “Homage” grew an extra blister with Keely’s guitar standing in for the tin whistle, while the omission of the title track’s string coda allowed things to end on a note that was triumphant instead of dour. It was a move that felt appropriate for the beer-soaked setting, as well as the 7 p.m. start time (the band also played a later show at 9 p.m.).
The freewheeling approach even extended to the stage banter. The crowd would have been more than satisfied if Trail of Dead had blazed through Source Tags without stopping (on record, it almost plays like one long track), but, once again, there was a thankful absence of preciousness. “Life is a big fucking cruel joke, which brings us to our next song,” mused Reece before “Heart in the Hand of the Matter”. “This next song’s about how we’re all gonna die.” He was probably telling the truth, but the bluntness and his buzzed smile stripped the song of its mystique, thus making it less dire. And who wants to feel dire on a Tuesday afternoon?
The mini-set following Source Tags plunged into further puckishness, with Reece making his obligatory trip into the audience (although it was on “Will You Smile Again?” instead of “Caterwaul”) and Keely riffing on the “Fuck You!” coda of closer “A Perfect Teenhood” with ad-libbed lyrics and air humps. Even though the song comes from Madonna, It made me remember how, after all these years, Source Tags & Codes remains a remarkably fun album. Sure, it’s an important one, too. But let’s not focus on the heavy stuff. After all, we’re all gonna die soon anyway.
It Was There That I Saw You
Another Morning Stoner
How Near How Far
Heart in the Hand of the Matter
Days of Being Wild
Source Tags & Code
Additional Songs (not from Source Tags & Codes)
Mistakes & Regrets
Claire de Lune
Bells of Creation
Will You Smile Again?
A Perfect Teenhood