TVD Live: Death at the Black Cat, 5/28

Let’s face it. Amidst the constant stream of news as to what the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have been doing around the world, who doesn’t welcome a feel-good story now and then? That is exactly what the world was exposed to when they learned of a band call Death. Thursday at the Black Cat in D.C., fans finally got to experience Death live in their first trip to the nation’s capital. 

Regarded as “the band who was punk before punk was punk,” Death was ahead of their time, the most influential band that no one had heard of. Their story was well-documented in the 2012 film, A Band Called Death, and with a new album and tour, forty years later Death’s time has finally come.

The evening began with a whimper, as most of the upper main floor of the Black Cat was empty save for a few early-comers hanging around the fringes of the room. That quickly changed as Obnox took the stage to open the show, it was a steadily growing stream of people from then on.

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Where to begin in trying to describe Obnox, the nom de plume of Cleveland’s Lamont “Bim” Thomas. Joined by DJ aLiVE on the Mac and turntable and John Daniel on drums, their smart mix of rap, punk, garage, and the blues was refreshing, raw, and creative. Try to imagine if the Flat Duo Jets and Chuck D collaborated, and you start to get an idea of where Obnox is coming from. Thomas’ sense of humor was woven through songs like “Too Punk Shakur” and “Leaving Cleveland,” with a verse expounding “Fuck your dreams, fuck your football team.

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The set was a lo-fi hour of pure fun and the blend of styles came very naturally. Daniel was a bit bipolar on the drums—at times locked in and focused, at others times he let loose and channeled his wilder side. aLiVE was unfortunately lost a bit in the mix except for his between-song samples and intros. I would have loved to have seen him working the turntable more than the Mac, but that’s just the old-school in me coming out. The crowd responded enthusiastically as Thomas’ personality was hard not to like.

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After the set break, Death was introduced by Timothy Burnside of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, explaining that Death had spent some time at the museum that day, and will be a part of it in the near future.

After leading the crowd in a scream of “DEATH!,” the band took the stage. Decked out in red paisley vests and red shorts with the Death triangle logo. Singer/bassist Bobby Hackney led the charge and was the energetic focal point of the show.

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Easing into the set, the pace quickly picked up as guitarist Bobbie Duncan rang out the familiar opening chords of “Keep On Knockin’,” and the crowd returned as much energy as the stage gave. Drummer Dannis Hackney was surrounded by his kit and shrouded in darkness, the only thing visible was his bowler-topped head.

Visibility issues aside, Dannis held down the beat throughout, interacting with Bobby whenever his brother turned to face him. The one thing that was clear as day from the first note to the last, was just how damn happy these guys were to be up on that stage. Smiling through most of the set, it was written on their faces that this is where they belonged—on the stage bringing their music to the people—and now is their time to do it. And they damn sure made the most of it.

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Death played through the songs written years ago with their brother David, like “Freakin Out,” “Rock and Roll Victim,” and “Let the World Turn,” then shifted to current songs from their new album, N.E.W. Bobby explained that the title, while an acronym, didn’t stand for anything specific, to make it your own and let it be whatever you wanted.

As they dove into songs like “Relief” and “The Times,” it was clear that the old spirit of Death was there, but sounding fresher than ever. The songs and the band just exuded positivity, and it infectiously spread to the fans dancing and even moshing along to the music.

Guitarist Bobbie Duncan, a primary songwriter on the new album was in perfect form throughout the show, playing with a more reserved style than Hackney. Bobby explained to the crowd that this was their first time playing D.C., and that there was no more appropriate place to play “Politicians In My Eyes,” their 1975 anthem against politicians in America. Proclaiming “Always tryin’ to be slick when they tell us the lies/They’re responsible for sending young men to die,” it became clear that the song is every bit as relevant today as it was forty years ago.

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The encore began with “Playtime” from N.E.W., and once the set was over they graciously thanked the crowd and made their way to the merch table where they stayed until the last person had met them and gotten their wares signed.

This is a band that has been given a second chance at life—quite literally a phoenix rising from the ashes of obscurity—to bring their music, both new and old, to audiences both young and old. Forty years later, the new beginning for Death is in full swing—and you really don’t want to miss it.

DEATH

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OBNOX

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