Published Oct 04, 2018With the Capital Ballroom filled to capacity with tittering drunkards buzzing with excitement for the Dead South's first-ever appearance in Victoria, former hometown boy Leeroy Stagger probably deserved a little more attention. Stagger was born in the BC capital after all, though he did subsequently move to Alberta where the country singer-songwriter was wholly embraced, winning their Peak Performance Project competition in 2015.
Love is a big concept for Stagger these days. Following in the tradition of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Stagger had an inscription written around the body of his guitar, which read, "In this battlefield called life, love is my weapon of choice." And he's serious about that.
Released in early 2017, Stagger is still touring on the back of Love Versus, his 11th studio album and first for True North Records. In talking about its title track, he relayed a story where he asked Bruce Cockburn, "Is love enough to save us?" And Cockburn replied, "No, but it's a big part of it." Apparently, it took Stagger a while to understand what that meant, until he saw a D.O.A. patch for their album Talk–Action=0, and then it clicked; love is just a word, and you need to back it up with action for it to have any effect.
It's hard to say how much impact that message had on this crowd, though. Performing with only Fort Macleod's Ryland Moranz by his side, on banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar, "Poison the Well," from his 2015 album Dream It All Away, had some good crunch to it, momentarily cutting through the chatter of the otherwise inattentive soldout crowd. Either way, Stagger is a quality lyricist, with his positive post-apocalypse odes and ruminations on dead punk legends. Letting Moranz take all the flashy fretwork on his range of stringed instruments, his masterful hands accented by red nail polish, indicated a sense of humility on Stagger's part.
With four oversized old-timey lightbulbs strung across the front of the stage, bull horns on a kick drum and a cattle skull on a speaker, the Dead South dressed the part. Acoustic guitarist and lead singer Nate Hilts donned a well-appointed suit, while Scott Pringle (mandolin, guitar), Danny Kenyon (cello), and Colton Crawford (banjo) surrounded him, each in white button-up shirts with suspenders. Together, they looked like the sheriff and his deputies cutting loose, but honestly, it's hard to tell where rustic roots aesthetic ends and hipster begins these days.
Regardless, this Regina quartet released their sophomore album, Illusion & Doubt, in late 2016. The record promptly stomped its way to number five on the Billboard bluegrass chart, then, ever cognizant of any U.S. attention, the Junos eventually gave it the award for Traditional Roots Album of the Year in 2018. Given the reception they got for their first Victoria visit, one has to think bigger things are on the way for the Dead South.
Breezing through complex changes with wide dynamics, their chemistry onstage was palpable. Hilts had a raspy, whiskey-soaked voice, while the trio around him harmonized like honey. Kenyon played the cello like an upright bass most of the time, giving their sound those head-nodding jugband bass lines. Pringle was like a hummingbird on the mandolin, while prodigal son Crawford triggered the kick drum and banjoed harder than Steve Martin ever could.
The Dead South may have looked like a band ready to play the 1896 Fort Victoria town social, but played with a great sense of urgency. Spacing the set out with downtempo ballads like "The Good Lord," these guys peppered the wasted crowd with breakneck bluegrass, attacking their strings with such fiery ferocity that it could dry out the Soggy Bottom Boys. No wonder Hilts blew a string during "That Bastard Son" from their 2014 debut Good Company.
They played the role too. The boys sashayed back and forth in time with their instruments, as if auditioning to replace ZZ Top in the inevitable remake of Back to the Future III. They passed a bottle of Jameson around the band mid-song during "Time For Crawlin'," and more impressively, while Kenyon whistled and played the sparse cello melody for "In Hell I'll Be in Good Company," the other three guys cracked open beers on beat in succession.
They may jokingly refer to themselves as Mumford and Sons' evil twins, and given their song "Banjo Odyssey" is all about cousin loving, it's easy to see why they'd make that leap, but since Mumford has been hanging out with men's rights activist Jordan Peterson lately, it's become clear that the Dead South are actually the good ones. Or at least the anti-heroes you love to root for.