…Trail of Dead @ The Garage Sponsored by Relentless Energy Drink, London 07/06/11

Trail Of Dead A462

… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead’, the very name brings a wry smile to your face. The Texan alternative rockers have been tearing through towns, smashing up drum kits, and causing headaches for tour managers for nigh on seventeen years now. But what has always set them aside from any other post-hardcore band is the way that they offset these humorous, almost adolescent tomfooleries that be-lie their real age, with bursts of real musical genius that chills your bones to the core in its irrepressibly honest and stern depictions of the human condition.

As a middle-aged Conrad Keely takes to the stage in a casual t-shirt/jean combination and raises a plastic cup in appreciation of the audience, before the rest of the band stroll on to join him, I notice that really there is nothing grandiose about the band’s stage presence, nothing but the music itself. That said, the iconic ‘bigness’ of the band’s sound is today limited by a lack of stage space, meaning there is only room for one drummer. But this doesn’t hold them back from going onto relentlessly surge through a wide variety of songs that stretch from across every corner of the band’s long career, with as much youthful energy as ever before, to an overall, very satisfied audience.

An hour before all this ensued, I spoke to co-front man Jason Reece about the band’s latest release, how they’ve changed over the years, and the challenge of bringing seventeen years worth of material back to life night in, night out on tour.

We begin with ‘Tao of the Dead‘, the band’s seventh album, released in February.

It’s partly a joke on ourselves, but also partly a reference to the ‘Tao Te Ching’ which is what inspires half of the album, because it’s about things like honour, morality, and just being the best human you can really. I don’t think we’ve changed ourselves that much since we started out, but we deliberately try to do different things with each album. ‘Century of Self’ had a lot to do with materialisation, and how people define themselves and their identity with products. I think we sort of placed ourselves on a pedestal a bit with that album, and with this one we tried to not do that so much.

Whilst clearly bringing a very introspective, personal focus to their music, the reference to Chinese Classical literature from well over two and a half thousand years ago maintains that epic narrative feel that has characterised the band’s recent albums. The other half is about what Reece calls the ‘American landscape’, and looks to question the values and ideologies with which western society is now built on, ‘it’s about the decay of the American dream’. In particular he speaks of ‘Pure Radio Cosplay‘, a song that parodies the concept of rock and roll with an opening that comically mimics The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’.

That song is about the state of music today, the concept of rock and roll, and whether rock music is really relevant any more? Can it really change anything?

The performance the band go onto give seems to be the ultimate admission that at the end of the day, it’s really just show-business. ‘Playing live for us is just like a massive cathartic experience. When you’re recording, it’s this really tough, tiring process, you’re constantly doubting yourself, and wondering if any of what your writing is still relevant, does any one really care any more? But when you come to play live, that’s all forgotten, it’s this big release, you can just go out and enjoy yourself,’ a distanced frown turns into a wry grin, ‘hence, you see, why I use the word party.

That they do better than Mr Chow or Charlie Sheen could ever dream of. The band begin the show with a tirade of energy from the off, blasting through four songs off Tao of the Dead, including ‘The Weight of the Sun’. However, it is only as we arrive at the mid-section, filled with the band’s most iconic songs from ‘World’s Apart‘ and ‘Source Tags‘ that the audience really begin to reciprocate that enthusiasm. This show is about ‘back to basics’ good old fashioned rock and roll; Conrad asks if anyone minds him turning up his guitar, the crowd reply in a rapturously positive response that pretty much sets the tone for the night ahead.

The band then go even further back to tracks from ‘Madonna‘ and the self-titled debut album, rounding off the evening with ‘Homage‘ and ‘Richter Scale Madness‘. Mixing the brand new with the very old, and the slender difference to be noted between the two, and ensuring the menace is fully maintained throughout, the band work hard to stick to the same values they started out with.

Duly noted, it is very honourable, but in their humble refusal to take themselves too seriously, ‘Trail of Dead’ neglect the artistry in which much of their music, and particularly layered guitar parts, are constructed. Tonight, the things I have personally always most appreciated about their music are hidden behind blunt guitar tones and, at times, a quite brash performance. If you listen to his lyrics, or read up on Keely’s writing and recording diaries, then you get a real glimpse into the struggling artist that he is at heart, but not tonight.

Still, they’re sticking by their principles; still enjoying themselves, and doing what they love, and the crowd love in equal measure, at the age of nearly forty. And in today’s business, that is quite something.

‘Trail of Dead’ will return to play more shows in the UK in August.


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