“This is the most interesting thing we do all year,” Murder by Death frontman Adam Turla said a few songs into the Indiana-bred band’s 28-song, two-hour set at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park on Saturday night. And that’s saying a lot, as the indie-Americana quintet with a twisted gothic vibe — perfect for the reputedly haunted Stanley — has been notorious lately for creative concept shows.
With lyrics often referencing ghosts and whiskey, Saturday’s marathon set — for fans who traveled from all over the country to see Murder by Death’s third-annual three-night run at the hotel that inspiring Stephen King’s The Shining — had a surprisingly punk vibe. Revelers (most dressed in vintage-style formal attire) stomped and sang along, drinks in the air, to upbeat thrillers like “The Curse of Elkhart” and many other Murder by Death songs that essentially dared spirits to appear.
Tattoos and vintage tuxedos and dresses abounded at the Stanley, where Murder by Death not only invited concert-goers to welcome ghost encounters but also to drink with the band until the wee hours in the hotel's posh old bar. After the show, my date and I wandered the legendary Stanley and chatted with Turla, cellist Sarah Balliet and bassist Matt Armstrong until well after 2 a.m. when the bar closed. Even then, Murder by Death seemed far from finished partying with its fans, who might drink a lot but are polite and immensely respectful of the 107-year-old Stanley’s staff and history — unlike (reportedly) some fans of Boulder's Leftover Salmon, which played the Stanley last year.
In 2014 Murder by Death became the first rock band ever to officially host shows at the Stanley, and the hotel’s owner — John Cullen — told the Denver Post last week that there's “no question the Murder By Death shows were the trigger” for $35 million in upcoming cultural investments in the hotel. Turla told me Saturday night that Cullen’s words about the success of the shows, which have sparked a “cultural renaissance” at the Stanley, mean the world to him.
And the Stanley gigs mean the world to Murder By Death’s passionate fans, one of whom Turla dedicated a song to “because you bring us a bottle of whiskey every fucking time you see us, which is a lot.”
As Murder by Death’s career is an ongoing love affair with its fans, from a “Whiskey Crew” club to a Kickstarter stunt in which drummer Dagan Thogerson (how's that for a name out of The Hobbit?) agreed to get tattoos chosen by fans, it was only natural that Saturday’s set featured a slew of rarities. Also included were a raucous, and fitting, version of David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream,” which was just released on MBD’s new fan-picked collection of covers, as well as the classic "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)," performed previously and famously by Cher and Nancy Sinatra.
Murder by Death is currently celebrating the tenth anniversary of In Bocca al Lupo, so it offered a generous helping of tracks from that dark concept album about “sin, redemption and guilt.” Even with a set featuring so many songs from Lupo and 2003’s Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them? (a concept album about the Devil’s war with a Mexican border town), it seemed hard to find anyone packed into the Stanley Hotel’s three-hundred-capacity detached concert hall who didn’t know every lyric.
One fan who stood out, singing along to everything in Murder by Death’s deep Saturday setlist, was a thirteen-year-old boy from Durango named Tim Miller. He told me after the show that his parents, who also come to the Stanley to see Murder by Death every year, got him into Turla and Co.’s music a couple years ago and he’s hooked. How great would it feel to be thirteen years old and get to hang out with your favorite rock band at the hotel that inspired the most famous horror film of all time? Not all musicians, nor all fan bases, are as rewarding to get up-close and personal with as Murder by Death and its enthusiasts (you could not pay me to attend Jam Cruise, for instance) but it would sure be fun for more artists—especially the few with such an incredible, unique live show as MBD — to take a chance like Murder by Death has with its annual Stanley Hotel run, which Turla says will hopefully continue for a long time.