I entered tonight’s performance by Viking Moses at The Bug Jar wondering what it would possibly take to meet my with high yet mysteriously vague expectations. In recent days I have been enamored with the haunting ballads and ghoulish sounds emitting from The Conquest Night, the newest chapter of the Viking Moses song book. Rumors of eclectic concerts and strange occurrences have left me anticipating something wholly unbelievable. What that might entail, I’m still not sure, goblins sprouting from Brendan Messai’s guitar, perhaps, or some other poltergeist manifesting itself onstage.
The Viking Moses portfolio is fairly expansive, so it was two songs in before I recognized “On the Way Home”, the opening track from The Conquest Night. The record chronicles one night of mischief in the lives of two young adventurers, emboldened by a naïve and nascent romance, braving the rural expanses of their hometown after curfew.
Fans will remember a similar narrative structure to the last full length Viking Moses project, The Parts That Showed, which focuses on a teenage prostitute and the sordid characters she meets over the course of her life. Messai is a master storyteller, and despite the seemingly bleak plot to both albums, the darker moments often illuminate an optimism and exuberance in life’s details. “On the Way Home”, for example, foreshadows the tribulations our two heroes will face while they dance through town. Tonight’s version of the song is even livelier than its recorded counterpart; one might even feel inclined to dance to the airy guitar and bouncing drum beat.
From this playful atmosphere Viking Moses leads us to “Howling Dogs”, the next sequence in The Conquest Night’s yarn. The song, with its ominous and frightening tone, stands out as one of the album’s best tracks. Here is where Messai earns his reputation as an enchanting storyteller, imitating a threatening canine during the chorus to put the entire audience delightfully on edge. While Messai is surely a talented musician, at those moments in tonight’s performance where he is most spellbinding his bright orange guitar is more of a prop than instrument. He strums it when his gesticulations happen to align themselves with the thickening plot.
During this and the following song, “Follow Foreign Love”, Messai’s intensity takes center stage, as if he is less musician and more medium, a sentiment with which Messai would whole heartedly agree. Viking Moses’ supporting roles are usually filled by journeyman musicians, often times scrapped together ad hoc, and tonight Messai seems to be working with an unfamiliar drummer. On multiple occasions he turns to give cues or encouragement. Messai doesn’t so much teach the drummer mid song as plead the stand-in to match his intensity.
I will admit that during certain sequences of the performance I am distracted by two fans overcome by the spirit of Viking Moses. The two have been up front and center the entire performance, dancing throughout the crowd, never stopping for breath or pausing with breaks in the music. They maintain a steady, sweaty tango throughout most of the show, creating a spectacle that is not one bit out of place. On the contrary, I imagine this happens at most Viking Moses appearances. Messai himself has moments where, entranced by his own music, he drops to his knees to strike a resounding, resonating chord in songs like 2006’s “Country Gown” or the eerie “The House Up Along the Way”.
Some moments are downright strange, like when Messai offers up one of his wayward beard hairs to the crown as “a memento for free, part of my human-ness.” While playing the overtly sexual “Pretty Little Eyes”, the usually shy and reserved Messai becomes suddenly graphic in his motions. He warns us ahead of time by saying “this is a sexy one”, before gyrating along to lyrics like “penetrate the silence with pretty little noise.”
Viking Moses ends the night with “In Servitude”, a song in which Messai’s soaring, wavering vocals seem equally fit for an Appalachian tent revival as this dark and dingy bar. While at times the performance was spellbinding in its intensity, that magic didn’t hold up the entire set. During certain stretches, the distance between Viking Moses and the audience grew, and the charm was temporarily broken. The last fading notes left me with a feeling akin to experimenting with a Ouija board. Sure, no spirits revealed themselves and no supernatural fury was unleashed, but the mystery and showmanship of the experience was affecting enough.