Death in June - Respectable Street Cafe, West Palm Beach - September 17
Is Douglas Pearce, the driving creative force behind Death in June, a fascist? The question has been posed ad nauseam since Death in June's inception in 1981. Pearce has undoubtedly brought the controversy upon himself willfully with his adaptation of runic symbolism and slightly modified Nazi insignia to represent the band. And to say he has but flirted with fascist ideology and concepts in his art is akin to saying Ted Nugent has flirted with being an asshole.
Last night at Respectable Street, a rare performance by Pearce, accompanied by John Murphy on drums, marked Death in June's first performance in the area since 1997. It was also the only scheduled date in the Southeast for this tour. The walls were lined with darkly garbed individuals, some of whom had decided the show was the appropriate time to bust out that dusty leather SS cap or throw on bits of runic swag. Though there were plenty of people sporting questionable bits of, uh, historical artifacts, the night was a peaceful one with very little in the way of true controversy.
While another dissection of Pearce and his artistic intent would be superfluous, some introductory background is necessary before tackling anything involving the artist.
(Readers, feel free to skip the next paragraph to get straight to the review.)
Death in June's art is, at its core, more art that questions than it is art that is questionable. Douglas Pearce has performed and collaborated with ethnically Jewish artists, performed in Israel, and Pearce is openly gay -- there were even embroidered patches available at last night's performance featuring the Totenkopf on a rainbow flag. However, Ernst Röhm, a Nazi commander and leader of the SA, was also a homosexual, and has been listed as a hero to Pearce. So, it can be said that Pearce appears to enjoy breeding controversy with ambiguity. And, for what it's worth, AC/DC enjoyed major commercial success with a song very simply titled "Night of the Long Knives", which was written about the sweeping purge of nearly 100 leftist Nazis that included Röhm's execution in 1934.
Now that we've clarified some important background issues, back to last night. The show opened with a duo of dark synth manglers from Miami that went by the name Opus Finis. Waves of rumbling synthesizer rolled through the bar as the group's frontman angrily sang into an array of effects pedals that transformed his voice in a robotic haze of expression. Opus Finis' set was a perfect opener for Death in June, providing a similarly dark experience without any sonic redundancy.
Death in June appeared as a pair of masked men, Douglas P. donning the iconic weathered white mask that has become synonymous with the band, and both men sporting different martial fatigues. The stage hosted a large American flag that featured the Totenkopf or other symbols of the band in the place of the stars. Pearce shook a bell and a tribal-sounding shaker loudly, as what could only be described as a ritual, began. The opening of the set was marked by percussion led stomps that began with "We Drive East." After a few more archaic sounding battery-driven chants, the masks came off and Pearce picked up a 12 string acoustic guitar.
The rest of the performance rifled through the entirety of the Death in June's discography, an intimate experience with the jangling and repetitious neofolk ballads that have seemingly always taken a backseat to the controversy. The sparsely rendered songs were performed beautifully by Pearce and Murphy, both of whom had an uncanny calm about them that betrayed the excitement being displayed by audience members. The set was lengthy, but, save for a few chatty Cathys in the back, it was one of the most attentive crowds we've seen in a long time -- particularly for an acoustic artist.
Pearce was in pleasant spirits, conversing with the crowd, taking requests, and at one point, the singer even complimented an audience member on the replica of his iconic mask the fan was holding overhead. His deep croon, familiar from the albums, was powerful and clear live, and the perpetually ringing acoustic guitar that Pearce strummed had a hypnotic effect when matched with Murphy's heavy tom drumming.
At the end of the set, Pearce took a few more requests from some of the more excitable audience members, and tried to end after performing what was to be the final song. However, the Respectable Street layout made it virtually impossible for a clean exit, and Pearce was trapped on the stage to perform even more. The singer quipped that he would "normally be backstage luxuriating with champagne and handsome men" before playing "Heaven Street."
In a final act of desperation, Pearce did a song a cappella as he had "broken too many strings" on his guitar to perform any more with instrumentation. Finally, the house music came on and the crowd of energized Goths, punks, and other denizens of the night and the pleather isle at Target broke into an impromptu dance party.