For the Detroit proto-punk band, Death, Sunday night’s show at the Beachland Ballroom was supposed to provide the story book ending to a tale which began some 30 years ago when the three Hackney brothers, Bobby, David, and Dannis, discovered Rock ‘N’ Roll and traded in their R&B dreams for the big riffage of MC5 and The Stooges.
The stage was set with life-sized portraits of the deceased brother, David, hanging on either side of the band. He looked just as he did in the days before punk broke, like a kung fu guru, with a white robe, well groomed afro, and a sense of calm and knowledge in his eyes. The two surviving brothers, Bobby and Dannis, along with guitarist, Bobbie Duncan, were dressed to the nines in fine white shirts, black vests, black pants, and their tightly braided hair hanging to their shoulders. The cameras were rolling for the final chapter in a documentary which would capture their fantastic journey from ’70s Rock ‘N’ Roll obscurity to 2009 critics’ choice. There was just one problem. As bassist/vocalist, Bobby Hackney proudly announced the band had just played two sold out shows in Chicago and Detroit, you could tell his voice was shot all to sh*t. All he could muster were some rough squeaks and deep grumbles. He vowed to play on, but his singing could hardly carry to the back of the half-filled ballroom. It was only Death’s third show, and it seemed as if their second life had already come and passed them by.
Still, Death soldiered on. With Bobby’s voice continuing to disintegrate, his son, Bobby Hackney, Jr, himself a musician, singing lead for the opening band Rough Francis, took over on vocals. This wasn’t a stretch. The junior Hackney had an instrumental role in reviving Death, often playing his dad’s old songs in tribute during his own personal bid to spread Death’s music to the masses.
As Death and Bobby, Jr, ripped through some of their classic cuts, think big, fast, righteous riffs, Thin Lizzy and The Stooges, and the type of energy which could only come from early ’70s Detroit, there was a sense in the crowd that this could work. It wasn’t ideal, but the father son thing, added a different ending to the Death saga. An unexpected ending, to be sure, one which may require some heavy editing and re-writing on the documentarian’s part, but one which could turn out to be just as special.
Then, came the reggae. Nothing against reggae, and nothing against the work the Hackney brothers did as Lambsbread, their roots, reggae band they formed after the dissolution of Death, but reggae wasn’t what the crowd came to hear. And it certainly didn’t help matters with the senior Hackney having worse and worse troubles with his voice, and junior being unable to step in. The disenchantment was quickly visible in the faces of the crowd. Some started to turn to the exit.
Yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my short time with Death, it’s that you can’t count the Hackney’s out. A quick rip through “Freakin’ Out,” “You’re a Prisoner,” and “Where Do We Go From Here,” all from their 2009 re-issue, For All the World to See, and all with Bobby, Jr back out in front, and the flow of the crowd was reversed. Disenchantment flipped back to excitement. That special feeling, the one which comes from witnessing an act few others will have a chance to see in their lifetime, an act who only a few short years ago seemed destined to remain in obscurity, from hearing a band who by all rights should have a spot next to the MC5 and The Stooges as Detroit’s most influential progenitors of proto-punk, returned.
Opening for Death, was Bobby, Jr’s Rough Francis. Joined by his two brothers (Julian and Urian) and two close friends, their music was an homage to the work of their father and their uncles. Not as soulful, not as grooving, and not as bluesy, the second generation did get one thing right — they certainly had the punk energy of their forefathers.
Locals, This Moment in Black History were the first to take the Beachland stage, and if you haven’t seen the Cleveland foursome in a while, you’ll notice some interesting changes in the band’s direction. Once all berserk, all fire, the band are laying down some slower, heavier jams. It’s a welcome change. Now, you can hear the soul and blues coming out of Lawrence Caswell’s bass, an aspect of the band which was lost when they played fast and spastic.
It wasn’t always a smooth transition, vocalist Chris Kulscar, a man who seemingly has espresso covered jumping beans in his pants, didn’t always know what to do with himself when the tempo was cut. Yet, when This Moment was able to fuse the old energy with the new jams, either through extended intros or outtros of heaviness, they unearthed a whole new groove, a groove with the potential to hook more ears in and outside of the Cleveland underground.