Elvis Perkins in Dearland
Paradise Rock Club, Boston, Mass.
November 30, 2009
A New York City native leading a New Orleans-inspired funeral dirge, playing from the Sacred Harp and preaching doomsday at the hipster infested Paradise Club. Discombobulating? Circuitous? Consider it just another detour on the remarkable career of Elvis Perkins and his band Dearland.
For Perkins, it’s been a long journey through a formative past punctuated by tragic loss. Perkins lost his father to AIDS in 1992 and his mother in the 9/11 attacks. And though he rarely broaches this subject in his work or interviews, he has admitted that these events have deeply shaped his music and life.
To hear an Elvis Perkins in Dearland concert is to experience not the funeral, but the resurrection. Perkins sings of doomsday, the bombs, the goodbyes, the cemeteries, and the loneliness — all that sad stuff. But filtered through him and his band, it somehow sounds triumphant, more a call to celebrate than to grieve.
Playing Monday night at the Paradise Rock Club, Perkins and his band infused their set with momentum and vibrancy, starting from the opening number when the entire band marched through the audience and then assembled on stage dancing like madmen. With fast moving bass lines and eerie aural injections of brass, strings, and accordion, the able hands of Elvis Perkins in Dearland made mourning become electric, (I’ve been waiting 8 years to appropriately use this pun) and the crowd responded all evening, eventually summoning a second encore, despite Perkins’s ailing vocal chords.
If death and rebirth are Perkins’s thematic base, then New Orleans is his stylistic muse. He draws equally from the gospel and voodoo of the Big Easy and his songs are laced with a decadent timelessness that evokes opulence and decay. His warbling whispered singing plays a ghostly accompaniment to the funereal marching band around him.
But it’s not all black suits and veils. Elvis Perkins in Dearland never plod along. They never seem weighted down by a casket. Yes, bodies are being buried, and, yes, mortality hangs like a damp rag, but Perkins never seems to get the memo, as he triumphantly proclaimed in his second number. “It’s the cemetery of the century, but hey it was a starry day.”
With his thumb on his nose, Perkins made a poor pallbearer. “I don’t let doomsday bother me. Do you let it bother you?” he insisted. That resilience in the face of all the sad stuff, is the nucleus of Perkins’s joy, and why his music is so morbidly infectious. It is the singular element that turns his songs into celebrations and makes you not forget about death, but for a brief moment laugh in its face.
This is the band that I want playing when they lower my bones. At least then there will be dancing.