The Dead South, the Wild-West style collective from Saskatchewan, Canada, have become known for their black and white costumes, evoking riverboat gamblers or gunfighters from the American West of the 1800s. But, especially as their songs have continued to evolve, the group’s tone and swagger feels rooted in the here and now.
At a packed Elevation 27, they rocked with the best of them while maintaining an essentially acoustic sound with a syncopated wash of notes. They did this with acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin and a cello that was held like a guitar—
a feat in itself. As always, lead singer and principal songwriter Nate Hilts established the group’s center with his swarthy, saw-edged voice—his lyricsboth colorful and often humorous.
Hilts’ voice is elevated and nuanced by the harmonies of his tall, lean, long-black-bearded partner on mandolin, Scott Pringle, who often deployed his lovely high vocal range. They opened with “Diamond Ring,” a song from the new album Sugar and Joy. This tune is darker, building on a theme of theft, gambling and murder, in the name of love and greed. Another early highlight was “Heaven to Hell,” during which fans shouted along, “In hell, I’ll be in good company.” When the band shifted to ballads, Danny Kenyon’s cello swept up and down as if it were the lightest of guitars. Songs like “Honey You” were played beautifully and evoked the feeling of a chamber ensemble piece. The sometimes raucous crowd showed appreciation for these quieter musical moments as well.
Everything was uniquely Dead South. The back of the performance space featured large stained-glass panels shaped like those in a chapel, with imagery such as bison horns to present a mix of the wild and the sacred. White lanterns were placed in front of the stage behind rows of small candles. The lighting accentuated the visuals, which, in turn, accented the performance, as the Dead South effortlessly blended folk, rock, country and bluegrass serving it up with style, verve and seemingly effortless communication with each other and their audience. Ron Wray