Dead Man’s Bones at Schubas

As I said in my recent review of the CD by Dead Man’s Bones, this is one peculiar project. And so it was in concert, too. Dead Man’s Bones came to Schubas Wednesday night (Oct. 21) for two sold-out shows. I think it’s a fair assumption that a high percentage of the crowd turned out because the band includes film actor Ryan Gosling. And need I say that a high percentage of the crowd was female? Gosling could have doing just about anything on the stage, and a good number of these fans probably would have shown up anyway. But, given the way the crowd responded to the songs, it was also clear that these fans have been listened to the Dead Man’s Bones album, which sounds a bit like Daniel Johnston teaming up with a school choir to do a musical about haunted houses. (The vocals are on key more often than Johnston’s, however.)

The songs sounded much the same in the concert, with a chorus of children in white sheets and pale ghost makeup crowding onto the stage and singing many of the choruses, to the delight of the audience. One of the girls in the chorus took part into a miniature drama, involving her falling dead and then singing from behind a backlit sheet. The whole spectacle was campy and quirky to the extreme. Even the opening act, if you can call it that, was an exercise in ironic amateurism: a talent show that included an artist drawing a picture then singing, a belly dancer, and a magician.

I expect some people would find the whole Dead Man’s Bones show a bit precious, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end, and unlike many of the folks in attendance, I wasn’t even there to moon over Mr. Gosling. (Don’t forget that he has other collaborators in this band, including another singer-songwriter, Zach Shields.) The celebratory show had some of the zany sense of humor and the “let’s try something weird” attitude that animated the Flaming Lips at their best. It was certainly a very memorable night.

Photos of Dead Man’s Bones.

Dead Man’s Bones: CD Review

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The latest film star to cross over into music is Ryan Gosling. OK, so he’s not really a huge star, but he is a fairly popular film actor who made his name with starring roles in indie films Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl and more mainstream movies including The Notebook. And now, he’s recording music with a group called Dead Man’s Bones, with another actor, Zach Shields, as his main collaborator. Their self-titled debut album is out now on the prestigious Anti label.

This is not your typical movie-star vanity recording project. This is one strange record. It sounds like something you might discover in a Salvation Army bin of used records, like some old recording project from a grade school that went awry when a couple of slightly demented musicians were put in charge of the choir. Is the lo-fi oddness of this whole thing a calculated move by Shield and Gosling? Sure, I suppose it might be, but so what? I don’t doubt that some people are going to hear this and say it’s yet another movie-star musical endeavor gone bad. But Shields and Gosling have come up with an oddball artifact that’s entertaining and frequently haunting.

Their signing sometimes resembles the howling of ghosts in a haunted house, while the guest vocalists from the Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children’s Choir make it all seem very naive and innocent. It helps that most of the songs are fairly catchy, like primitive rock, gospel and folk tunes being played late night in a basement with little more than acoustic guitar, piano and tambourine. The record meanders off a few too many times, but so do most dreams — and more than anything else, this record feels like a dream. At the end of it, you wake up, trying to remember what just happened. Did you really hear what you think you just heard?