Dead Man’s Bones Are Thrillingly Alive

Dead Man's Bones

Dead Man’s Bones

LIVE: Dead Man’s Bones
October 20, 2009
Opera House
Toronto, Ontario

Ryan Gosling and Zach Shields shouldn’t be good. Their singing voices hover around adequate, their playing is often rudimentary, their songs usually contain one or two solid verses and shouty choruses that can’t sustain even a modest three minute single, and their live shows are patchworked, under-rehearsed affairs that have the feel of a high school talent show.

Throw in Gosling’s Hollywood heartthrob status, the spotty pedigree of other actors-turned-musicians (Keanu Reeves, Kevin Costner, Billy Bob Thornton, etc.), and a dogging cred-burning stigma that they’re just two tourists playing rock star at the expense of the lifers and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

In short, Dead Man’s Bones shouldn’t work at all.

But they do, and quite often gloriously so.

The sign on the door said “SOLD OUT” by the time I arrived at The Opera House (the show had already been upgraded once from the much smaller Music Gallery) and the floor was packed with people trying to keep up with the jive of Mysterion The Mind Reader.

Mysterion’s a bit been-there-done-that to anyone who frequents Parkdale bars, but plunked in the middle of a rapidfire variety-show-as-opening-act his routine helped establish a fantastical tone for the evening.

Tatiana “from the circus” then threw four white doves around the stage with varying levels of success before a pair introduced as Phillip and Tanya executed a series of lifts, dances and contortions. Tatiana then returned to the stage with a team of dancing poodles.

Shields and Gosling walked on to the stage immediately following the poodle routine (with some of the dogs still loitering side stage) to squeals and a sea of flickering camera phones. They backed the ghost-sheeted narrator of the variety portion of the show in an old tyme-y number, escorted a face-painted, white cloak-wearing ghost choir of children on to risers and hurled into “Flowers Grow Out Of My Grave.” The ghost kids went crazy, dancing around, pumping their fists and losing the hoods of their costumes.

It was a darling start and it set the tone perfectly.

Up next was “In The Room Where You Sleep,” complete with Shields pounding away in some sort of percussion playground and Gosling bouncing at the keys.

The extended clapalong start to “Lose Your Soul” brought a party vibe that pretty much ran contrary to a song about losing your soul, but that was probably the whole point.

After introducing the ghost choir as students from the Etobicoke School Of The Arts and playing the rather morbid “Buried In Water,” the show devolved into a mini-opera. This involved one of the ghost choir girls getting shot with sparkly streamers and then somehow transforming into a film sheet which the band then held up to project black and white home movie of what appeared to be Shields and Gosling hiking around.

Shields quavered his way through “Werewolf Heart” before Gosling took the lead again on signature track “Dead Man’s Bones.” It was about the time the ghost choir broke into an extended crying/sobbing fit during the song’s breakdown that the true depth of Dead Man’s Bones’ ridiculousness really became clear.

To be fair, it all felt 100 per cent genuine. Gosling and Shields aren’t taking the piss or pulling one over on people. It’s clear in their world nothing says good times like singing about hauntings and death while letting loose with a choir of teenie-boppers. It’s wonderfully twisted and fun and it’s way more charming than you’d ever think it would be.

The band are at their best when they’re making like it’s 1957 with Gosling in the role of Buddy Holly. Indeed, “My Body’s A Zombie For You,” complete with cheerleader-style “Imma z-o-m-b-i-e, Zombie!” chant, could soundtrack any period b-movie horror set at the sock hop.

“Pa Pa Power” devolved into a near rave out and concluded with Shields counting out “1,2… 1,2,3… Die!” with everyone then collapsing in a heap of playdead bodies onstage. This then morphed into a crowd singalong of the “Paper Ship” line “a ghost ship on the blue” and a polite exit from the stage. There was no encore.

A slogan sublimated on to the back cover of the Dead Man’s Bones album says “Never let a lack of talent get you down.” On this night Dead Man’s Bones and a bunch of schoolkids playing ghost did just that and proved if you’ve got the right spirit, even dead things can seem incredibly alive.

This story was originally published Oct. 21, 2009 via Chart Communications.

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