In a closet under the stairs at my parents' house on Whidbey Island, WA, is a green piece of a bass drum, destroyed onstage at Seattle's Showbox in 2002 during an ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead concert. The kit literally exploded at the hands of drummer-guitarist-super-buff-dude Jason Reece. I was instantly hooked, and for my birthday that winter my girlfriend bought me a hoodie sweatshirt of theirs, decorated with singer-guitarist Conrad Keely's Hindu-influenced drawings. I wore it proudly.
Ten years later, not much has changed for Austin, TX, art-rockers: "We just want to thank you guys," Reece addressed fans Friday night at New York's Irving Plaza, where the band wound down a tour behind their eighth album, Lost Songs. He chuckled, "We're glad you're still around." Key word: Still.
...Trail of Dead are one of the rare talented and devoted bands that never (at least permanently) made the leap to larger stages, yet maintain a dedicated fan base. And despite label issues (they've had many homes, major and indie) and the usual hardship that comes with middling rock success, they continue ahead. This is the spirit of rock in its pure form.
Artistcally and commercially, TOD peaked with 2002's Source Tags & Codes, one of the few albums to receive a 10.0 review from Pitchfork; it's a gorgeous convergence of art rock beauty and raw power. It's The Hulk with a paint brush. They've released five albums since, all of 'em decent to good, but none equaling the genius of Source Tags & Codes. But one thing has maintained: TOD's live show--it's an aural assault. You may discover random bruises afterwards.
Once a six-piece with keyboards and additional percussion and guitars, TOD have slimmed to a quartet centered around the only original members, Keely and Reece. TOD may be leaner and meaner than ever.
Friday night was all about brute force: Reece, a short-ish, barrel-chested dude with bulging arms, switched between guitar and drums, treating both like a punching bag. Keely, who often sits in on drums, stuck to guitar, playing shimmering riffs and rhythmic crunches, and blasting off into cosmic solo land. They slayed on tracks from across their catalogue, including Reece's hard-charging Lost Song gem "Catatonic" and "Spiral Jetty" from 2011's underrated Tao of the Dead. There was "Will You Smile Again for Me?," from 2004's Worlds Apart, and plenty from Source Tags, which had the mostly male crowd moshing in a circle pit. They twice held Reece aloft when he dove in to join the party.
Reece and Keely's respective tracks represented the attributes each brings to TOD: Source's "Homage" and "Caterwaul," both Reece's, were punk blitzkriegs with Reece's neck flexed tight and bulging, sweat soaking his black t-shirt, as he shouted like Rollins in battle. "Relative Ways" and "Another Morning Stoner," both Keely's, were more melodic, with crashing guitar jams and drum builds.
It all ended in a sweaty, exhaustive mess; as the bassist detuned and screamed "f-ck you! f-ck you!" repeatedly, Reece and Keely destroyed their mic stands and drum kit, just like they did back in Seattle a decade before (and many, many other times I've witnessed in between).
One of TOD's faithful fans that night was Steve Kandell, former editor of SPIN magazine and current long form editor at BuzzFeed, who tweeted, "It’s 2012 and …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead can still somehow afford to chuck their gear into the crowd."
Actually, they probably can't. But they did anyways, because nothing--whether its old(er) age or music biz hardship or whatever--can diminish their desire to rock.
On my way out I stopped by the merch table and bought a t-shirt.