MURDER BY DEATH at THE STANLEY HOTEL | 1/18/14 Most shows in Colorado are easy to get to, even if you head up to the Belly Up in Aspen. But with the flood-damaged highways leading up to Estes Park, with one particular stretch narrowed to just one lane with each side of the highway sharing that lane and regulated by a light, it was a micro-Odyssey in itself just getting to the Stanley Hotel. Fortunately there was no mystery involved in figuring out where in which building in town was hosting this unique concert. The sprawling complex of classically designed white structures has a legacy of its own.
For this run of shows, Murder by Death invited fans to dress accordingly in some kind of formal wear, and many people happily obliged, as did the band, which gave the show an air of The Great Gatsby meets the Rocky Mountain equivalent of Portlandia.
The red lighting in the background of the wide stage gave it a contrasting hue from the white backdrop and projection of films that ranged from black and white German expressionist bits to what looked like snippets from those FSA photographs of rural poverty. Adam Turla was a vibrant figure fronting the band looking like a Vaudeville-era performer with a Tin Pan Alley singer style. Sarah Balliet's cello playing was masterful to the point where she could make the cello sound like horns, be it a trombone or a doleful trumpet.
Playing over twenty songs over the course of two hours, including an encore, Murder by Death played a set that pulled material from across its discography, all of which people seemed to know well, with many folks gesturing as though conducting the band. For "Kentucky Bourbon," the band brought on Vincent Edwards to play keyboards -- a guy who hadn't played in the band since 2004; understandably, he wanted to be a part of this special occasion, playing the place that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining. You could hardly blame the guy and kudos to the current members of the band for bringing him in for such a unique performance opportunity.
A baroque pop blend of drinking songs with small elements of sea shanties, the set was reminiscent of DeVotchKa -- in tone, if not necessarily in terms of songwriting and sonics -- and the setting gave the whole thing a feel like a place out of regular time without being otherworldly. And with the balcony open, venting out the warm air generated by crowd you could go out and clearly see the stars normally hazed out by the ambient orange glow of the urban sprawl of Denver.
Murder by Death performed well and with great spirit, but the ambience of the whole place and the experience of being there and getting there, perhaps of people staying at the hotel afterward and partying with the band, had an unmistakable air of being part of something special -- like the atmosphere of a John Crowley novel, only without the literal presence of magic.
Following "Spring Break 1899," and one of the shortest breaks following a main set ever, Turla told us the last two songs would be a bit of a train wreck but added that both tunes were requested and not part of the plan of the show proper. If the songs -- a version of "Boy Decide" and "Those Who Stayed" (which seems entirely approppriate) -- were indeed train wrecks, then a train wreck must be a glorious, if frayed, thing.
Personal Bias: How often do you get to see any band at the Stanley Hotel? Murder by Death was perfect for that place with the aesthetics of its music and its lyrics. Random Detail: Ran into former Eyes Caught Fire bassist Noah Winningham and Seventh Circle Music Collective founder Aaron Saye at the show. By the Way: There were lots of cool T-shirts from Murder by Death, as well as vinyl versions of most of its albums.