Live Review: The Dead South @ Northcote Theatre

23 January 2023 | 9:02 am | Monique La Terra

Gritty and remorseless, The Dead South is bluegrass for headbangers.

(Pic by Kiriako Iatridis)

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It seems Canadian bluegrass has swept the country. 

Except bluegrass ensemble The Dead South are not your typical bluegrass band. Born from the ashes of an alternative grunge band, the Saskatchewan group refer to themselves as "Mumford and Sons' evil twins”. I mean, how many bluegrass bands would dare cover System Of A Down’s Chop Suey

And perhaps it’s that unorthodox take on traditional bluegrass and a devil-may-care approach that has made them so popular, particularly Down Under. Australia ranks among their highest streaming demographics — Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne take out their second, third, and fourth most popular cities by monthly streams worldwide. 

All of this considered, the crowd on night one of the tour in Northcote was especially rowdy and roaring for a good time. Flat-brimmed hats bobbed throughout the venue, and many chose to mimic the band’s signature style by wearing white shirts with black suspenders.

Silence fell across the venue as The Hooten Hallers, a trio from Missouri, took to the stage for an unapologetically chaotic set full of gritty bass-sax, lap-steel guitar, and enough tempo changes to give you whiplash. One part blues and roots, one part honky tonk, the band ploughed through song after song, including a track titled Garlic Storm dedicated “to the world’s most powerful vegetable”. 

With barely enough time to refill our glasses, the main act arrived in their pioneer best, looking every bit as though they’d just rode in from Frontierland. The quartet opened with Diamond Ring, a relentless song that swelled mercilessly. Within four minutes the music had taken hold of the 1500-strong crowd, with revellers raising their glasses and stomping their heels in time with the cacophony of strings, rattling the floorboards of the historic Melbourne venue.

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Visually, the smoky stage gave the band an air of mystery, while the lighting brilliantly rivalled the communication scene in Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, adding a sense of grandeur to the intimate venue. 

The setlist played out like a spaghetti western but sounded like gospel with highlights including That Bastard Son and The Recap, a ferocious tune that vividly recounts the story of a barroom brawl, as well as Snake Man Pt 1 & 2 where the band showcased their musical dexterity. 

Stripping away the guitar for a paired back coupling of the banjo (Colton Crawford) and cello (Danny Kenyon), In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company saw Nate Hilts and Scott Pringle share lead vocals with hypnotic results. 

In fact, Hilts and Pringle made a habit of sharing lead vocals. While Hilts’ grizzled voice evoked Appalachia in Broken Cowboy, Pringle’s voice embodied traditional country and dazzled on Dead Man’s Isle, which leaned heavily into traditional Irish sea shanty influences.

The band returned to the stage for the encore after thunderous chants from the audience and ended the show with a cover of You Are My Sunshine and Banjo Odyssey.

Gritty and remorseless, The Dead South is bluegrass for headbangers. It’s the type of music that seeps into your bones, transporting you back in time to dusty one-horse towns. You don’t know how it happens, but you find yourself stomping your feet and slapping your knees to the boisterous beat, unable to look away.

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