THE S/T FIVE: “So ‘Relative Ways’ Still Kinda Rules,” And Four Other Reasons We’ve Seen …Trail of Dead Way Too Many Times

Conrad Keely leads Midnight Masses in a cuddly lil' chorus line.

Photos/Text by Andrew Parks

We’re not sure how it happened, but we’ve seen …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead more than any other band of the past five years. As in enough times–8? 11? 15?–to say we’ve witnessed the Texan transplants at their worst (the SxSW ’06 gig where frontman Conrad Keely sat in front of keyboard racks for the entire set, clearly indulging his prog-rock fantasies instead of what we really came to see: genuine mayhem) and absolute best (a roots-revisiting, one-night-only collaboration between Keely and …Trail co-founder Jason Reece).

Last night’s Century of Self gig was caught somewhere in between, although it erred more on the side of …Trail’s better shows. One award it did win was the prestige of being the most oppressive-sounding gig we’ve experienced outside of a buzz-stirring Source Tags & Codes set at Bowery Ballroom in 2002. Maybe it was the fact that the night’s soundcheck lasted a good 45 minutes, but every element of …Trail’s mix (the gut-punching percussion of Reece and Aaron Ford, the clanging chords of Keely and Kevin Allen, the wobbly low-end of Jay Phillips, the smothered synth lines of keyboardist Clay Morris) rang out loud and ridiculously clear–enough to knock us back a few inches during such time-tested jams as “Totally Natural” and the hardcore-esque “Homage.”

And what does this all add up to? Why, another edition of “The S/T Five,” of course …

The Top Five Reasons We Still Give a Damn About …Trail of Dead

1. The infinite patience of guitarist Kevin Allen.

1. The undying patience of Kevin Allen.
See the guy lurking in the shadows, with a smug look caught somewhere between abject terror and downright disgust? That’s guitarist Kevin Allen, a.k.a. the only …Trail of Dead member that’s consistently avoided the ax-grinding, bottle-breaking bullshit that used to get in the way of the group actually finishing their live songs. (Memorable TOD moment: Watching them coat the Five Spot–a former Philly venue that typically hosted jazz shows–in stale beer and mounting piles of debris.)

Except for that one time where he was so drunk he couldn’t stand up straight–a problem Keely remedied by plowing the poor guy over. You know, a few years ago we’d say Kevin’s in it for the money or the C-list fame. But now that the band is free from Interscope and paying their own way through Richter Scale Records, it’s clear that …Trail of Dead is a dysfunctional bromance on par with the Pineapple Express DVD we just finished watching.

2. The “mama, I wanna be a rock star” moves of Conrad Keely.
While devil horns  and Townshend-like windmills aren’t exactly fresh forms of stage expression, there’s something endearing about the effort Conrad Keely has put into every …Trail of Dead show we’ve ever seen, including the bad ones. By now, we can mimic it all, from his squinty eyes and “I’ve really got to take a shit” poses to the fist-pumping and arm-swinging that punctuates his latent guitar heroism.

Jason Reece at the Village Voices SxSW 2008 party
Jason Reece at Village Voice's SxSW 2008 party

3. Jason Reece is crazier than a wild chimpanzee.
Don’t let the oh-so-emo appearance of the above photo fool you … Jason Reece is out for blood every time he hits a stage. Most of the time, he takes his aggression out on a rickety drum kit, but on the rare occasion where he steps out front and assumes the mic position, we can understand how such a short guy once survived a tussle with the Tower of Black-Hearted Power that is Mark Lanegan.

Beyond that, Reece’s one-liners are pretty priceless and, well, odd, especially his completely random rants about various psychedelics. (Last night, he mumbled something about DMT.)

4. Aside from a few missteps and unfair Pitchfork reviews (a 4.0? really?) here and there, …Trail of Dead’s back catalog tends to get our blood boiling and make us feel young again.
Shall we count the songs? “Relative Ways”; “Totally Natural”; “It Was There That I Saw You”; “Clair de Lune”; “Another Morning Stoner”; a particularly venomous “Will You Smile Again For Me”. All of the above and a healthy hour of other evergreen standards and future classics held …Trail of Dead’s set together better than any of the other semi-agrro acts that’ll cross the Music Hall of Williamsburg’s path this year.

5. …Trail of Dead: “Making Geeks Feel Good About Themselves Since 1994.” (Us included, of course.)
Scan the above crowd shot. Looks like a video shoot for “Boys Just Want to Have Fun,” right? As mixed as Friday’s male/female breakdown was, we couldn’t help but smile–and, okay, laugh a little–as 10-20 little dudes pretended the floor was their very own Woodstock ’99 (minus the mud and the sexual assaults). Nowhere near as vicious as the Kylesa chaos we endured last month, last night’s Revenge of the Nerds display was quaint and cute. Like the time we almost died upfront at a Converge show.

And now, for a few bonus photos [slideshow available here]