In a New Year's concert filled with country-gothic murder ballads and tent-revival doomsday sermons, Slim Cessna's Auto Club singer Munly Munly put on the creepiest performance of the night. Duded up in all black, Munly played the slightly unhinged sidekick to Slim Cessna's country preacher on Wednesday, stalking around the stage at the Summit Music Hall and growling his verses like a warning to the audience. As the band played "Jesus Is In My Body, And My Body Has Let Me Down," he crouched down and sang directly to the band leader, proclaiming "His anger it be a-rising, slaking out wise mens' stars," as Cessna sat and nodded along.
After years of being spread across the country, the members of Slim Cessna's Auto Club came home this June, moving back to the Denver metro area. For most of the band's 23-year history, their New Year's shows have been a staple in town. In its latest outing, the group showcased a thoroughly polished set, worked out over the years and burnished on recent Western and European tours.
There's a lot of God at a Slim Cessna show, though never really the kind of God you'd want deciding your fate. Cessna, who grew up as the son of a Baptist preacher, seems profoundly ambivalent about the divine, swinging from straightforward spirituals to tongue-in-cheek apocalyptics in the course of a single song. The band's opening number, "He, Roger Williams," turned a gospel eulogy for the titular missionary into a series of pot shots at what he represented: "Wash away our red, let's purify our skin / All so we may be a puritan." At their darkest, not even Jesus, who kicks off his second coming by drinking up the seas and unleashing his wrath on Colorado, is exempt.
For the most part, the band seems happy just to inhabit the natural contradictions of country music, a genre that sets statements of faith next to stories of drunkenness and crime. That gentle irony was present not just in the band's lyrics, but in the staging of their entire show, from the hologram Jesus and Mary stuck to Lord Dwight Pentecost's double-necked guitar to the way that Cessna wondered out loud if Jesus really died for him, as Munly sat on the drum riser behind him and swigged from a tallboy of Coors Light.
Wovenhand, which opened, shared its own spin on gothic mysticism. The band has come a long way from its Americana roots; its set on Wednesday was so heavy it occasionally verged on metal, the guitar and bass breaking out into dense, chugging riffs. Front man and longtime Cessna collaborator David Eugene Edwards' added his fuzzed-out, reverb-laden vocals, throwing stiff, quasi-mystic gestures at the audience and strutting around the stage. The end result was something like a radio evangelist who had just discovered Black Sabbath.
By the way: The first opener, Munly and the Lupercalians, consisted entirely of members of the headlining band, rearranged and with everyone but Munly in wild masks.
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