The sparse crowd at Bi Nuu was ready for a true show from the beginning of the evening. Me & Marie, a simple and raw duo of Maria Moling and Roland Vögtli, kicked off the night. The German band possessed a fitting romantic brand of melancholy folk that interlaced with its grungy sensibilities. The rumbling of the U-Bahn overhead combined with the strikes of Moling’s drum sticks provided the perfect spaces into which the guitar willingly slipped. Nearly unwavering eye contact between the two players almost overshadowed the musical parts with which they were conversing. One felt as if the audience was intruding into a personal moment. Their set tapered off into a whisper of the anxieties of unrequited love set to minor chords.
The venue filled slowly with a layer of fog from the whirring machines set around the stage. And as the stage was prepared for the presence of Murder By Death, a musical outfit hailing from the Midwest that is well-versed in creating ghostly aural and visual landscapes, cigarettes were lit and whiskey was sipped: red embers contrasted with the darkness of the venue. The band started directly and didn’t give the audience time to fully sink into the environment. At first, energy levels were low and the members did not seem fully present. The lyrics “As they professed their grief/A smoke was lying on his lips/and in his hand a rusty flask/even in death he’d forced a smile” trickled thickly from Adam Turla’s lips. The sound was a bit sharp and Sarah Balliet’s cello fought gracefully for its frequencies as the sound technician figured out this particular sonic equation in this particular architectural space.
The audience was further placed in a state of suspended reality as “A Master in Reverse Psychology” snuck into the room. Two men sang at the top of their lungs as Turla pondered what the end would be like. Their arms were around each and the foam from their beer splashed over the sides of their plastic cups as Balliet scratched at discordant notes. And here David Fountain made his sonic debut with the trumpet. The instrument had been silent, though it had been shining on the back of the stage, reflecting the lights. Fountain forced air through the trumpet and made its mournful melody heard clearly above the four other musicians and the steady murmur of the audience.
“Big Dark Love,” the title track from the band’s new album, built and resonated underneath a ceiling of red lights. The onstage reincarnation of the dense composition was just as dramatic as one would have hoped; Turla’s husky croon carried the audience into “Lost River.” The instruments seemed to be attempting to occupy the same acoustic wavelength and the sound took on a wobbly quality, but Fountain’s vocals pulled it all back together. “Drink from the river,” he sang, and traded the trumpet and keys for a voice that was clear, strained, and somewhat heartbreaking: a pleasant surprise to be found in the band’s newest member.
“This is a very Kentucky song,” Turla declared before delving into “Kentucky Bourbon,” but the audience had other ideas. Members were excited by the concept of the South and the preconceived notions of whiskey by the campfire in the backwoods paired with shotguns by the door; they screamed for Virginia City and for the South, phrases that seemed ironically out of place in Berlin, thousands of miles away from the home of bourbon.
Shifting through the audience and chasing the best version of the sound, the empty space in the back of the venue called out. Phonically, the tunes were better as they climbed over the audience heads and accumulated pieces of their sweat and souls before gracing the back wall with their presence. “I can’t see you. So I’m just assuming you are having a terrible time. Worst concert ever,” chuckled Turla, but there was a reflection of truth in the way his shoulders were set. Those in the audience did not give much back within the exchange of energy; they were a step removed from what was actually happening.
Turla was drenched in sweat, the light denim of his shirt turned dark. Maybe that’s the curse of the lead singer, to stay dialed in even when those whose eyes are watching have begun to fade. “I’ll drink whiskey instead of water,” he offered as a remedy. And as the clock on the side of the stage read 11:11 in its sharp, digital numbers, the singer took a swig of whiskey and dove into the remainder of the set.
“Thank you so much for watching us. I really appreciate it.” And with that short closing, the band exited the stage quickly, like a mirage that had simply been biding its time before leaving its viewers to thirst.