(Picture it, June 2016, at the Bunbury Music Festival)
“Let’s see… I want to check out a band I haven’t seen before… hmmm…. who’s playing? Oooh, cool! Dead Man String Band! I really like string bands, with the banjos and fiddles and the sweet falsetto harmonies. Kind of a funny name, but we’ll see what this is all about.”
“What the… Oh, my ears! And what the hell is he wearing? Is that even bluegrass music?”
One thing I love to see when it comes to the Dead Man String Band is the first-time audience member. It’s a lot to take in, and the longer you watch the more you peel away the layers of everything that’s going on. With just one Dead Man, there is a full band wailing. The notes he plays sound like there are two guitars, with strong musical influences of blues, rockabilly, punk, and folk. His feet are kicking a drum kit complete with bass and snare with double pedals for rolls and fills. One microphone is clean, the other sounds like an old gritty harmonica. Cool, right? Many times, an act like this is appreciated for the novelty of a performer being able to sing and play more than an instrument at a time. This is not one of those shows. The Dead Man String Band is an exercise in exorcism, with one man building just the right contraption to communicate the complexity of his art. It’s loud, it’s gritty, it’s aggressive, and it is the art that is created when there is more to perform than the music.
Based in Northern Kentucky, the Dead Man String Band doesn’t play in the Cincinnati area as often as he used to, either taking his act on the road or playing in town as Rob McAllister. The “band” has been McAllister’s long-term investment into an unusually dynamic act done uniquely well. For about three years now he has added bits and pieces to the central idea of playing guitar with his hands while drumming with his feet so he could have a full sound in a self-contained unit. At first it was an acoustic guitar and kick pedals for a drum and tambourine. Musically, the act was already edgy with aggressive guitar playing and song themes that sounded like old-school angry blues, but the leap in evolution came in becoming an electric act. Electric guitars allow for more options with tone effects, with one of those effects being a frequency splitter routing thumbpicked notes through a bass amp. The bass notes with a more full drum kit added to guitars make for a wall of sound. The act got faster, the act got louder, and from there the Dead Man String Band blasted off.
Bands take time to mature and develop into a unit, and a one-man band is no exception. After hitting all of the places in the Cincinnati area as the Dead Man String Band, it was time to hit the road to start gaining a following. For the past several months the Dead Man has been hitting cities and towns who have never heard of him, and he will never use that as an excuse to go easy. Every show gets the same amount of guts and sweat. He’ll sometimes grab an audience member to play the drum pedals while he stands to play, or yell out parts for the room to sing along. When he leaves those cities and towns, the Dead Man String Band has more fans. Every time he returns to the Cincinnati area, we get to see a more evolved version of the band. Even Rob McAllister’s solo performances reflect the mileage he has gotten as a musician and performer. When it’s a big show like the Bunbury Music Festival, you can expect to see the culmination of months and years in the making.
The Dead Man String Band is an art form in itself, the complexity of which is a strong reflection of the artist who invented the vehicle. There is technicality, musicality, songwriting, and emotion at a level that is astounding to witness. As an artist, the Dead Man wants the act to speak for itself. He’s not up there telling stories about himself or why he chose to write a song about his cat. He’s tucked away under a mask and behind a wall of instruments and sound gear, playing furiously with every part of his body he can move from a drum stool. If you aren’t paying attention you may not notice what it takes to maintain that kind of energy for hours at a time. There have been shows when the Dead Man leaves the stage area and then collapses on his knees or on a couch somewhere backstage for a while before he can walk around. Every show gets that level of effort. If you haven’t seen the Dead Man String Band before, put a check next to his name on your Bunbury schedule so you remember to see him. If you like loud, stand up front. If you don’t like loud, get earplugs and stand up front anyway.
Dead Man String Band plays Bunbury Music Festival on Saturday on the Yeatman’s Cove Stage at 2p.