The Dead Tongues perform at Jammin Java on Feb. 17, 2019. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)
I walked around Jammin Java on Sunday, its brick walls reflecting the stagelights, crowd slowly filling in. My wife asked if I wanted a beer; we went to the bar, where a gaggle of musicians ordered drinks, special opener Molly Sarlé holding a bouquet of white and yellow flowers. Ryan Gustafson, also known by his stage name The Dead Tongues, walked away last, but not before I could say, “I’m really looking forward to the show.” He stopped, turned, looked me in the eyes, telling me “Thanks so much,” with a hand on my shoulder.
That intention followed him to the stage, where he gazed into the audience with seriousness and a touch of mirth. Following Molly’s request of the audience to move close to the stage during the opening set, an easy communion settled into place when Ryan took to the stage with his band — a trio for most of the night minus a few songs with Molly (who is also part of Appalachian trio Mountain Man).
Ryan put out the album Unsung Passage last year, his third under the moniker The Dead Tongues, a record that spins its way into your soul after a few listens. Many of the conventional descriptors about The Dead Tongues — journey and exploration and Americana — are all apt enough but fail to capture the soul of it, the roots feeding the songs.
The songs themselves seemed to ebb and flow with the stop and go of living; it was less about the road and the journey and more about the act of living. There was movement, there was change; there was living, there was not-living. There was the transitory themes of “Clip Your Wings,” with its subtle conversation on the necessity of motion, of the sudden stop of that movement, the pain of ending or destroying a life. The strange and wonderful joy of “My Other” and the gentle admonition to “look up, look up when you get down.” The contrast of “Thunder and Crash” with its recognition of death and dying to the promise of giving it all in “The Giver.”
Stream Unsung Passage by The Dead Tongues on Spotify:
Unsung Passage possesses richness in textures, and Ryan displayed an uncanny gift for discussing life’s busyness. There were sonic touchstones — it’s not off-base to reference Van Morrison or Bob Dylan — but the songs were uniquely Ryan. The way he played his instruments — guitar and banjo — was a journey unto itself, loping melodies that float through the mind’s ether, all while he unfolded lung-emptying earworms on the harmonica.
Ryan and his band opened the night with “Graveyard Fields,” a standout cut from Montana, the album preceding Unsung Passage. Like so much of the best music coming from North Carolina, there’s a humidity to the song, riding a road next to the blues while edging into something a touch bit funky. Ryan settles into his role as a mystic here, easygoing but almost unfathomable. The band then slipped into the twilit transit of “Pale November Dew,” a song about the mutability of place and home, of life and living.
The Dead Tongues moved onward into spring with “Black Flower Blooming,” its breeze-flitted melody buoyed by mellotron. Ryan stopped the song early, still playing softly on his guitar, turning to the band aside him saying, “there’s something here about ketamine,” laughing and beginning again, the lyric remembered. He mentioned Zucotti Park (made recently famous by the Occupy movement) throughout the verses, hitching rides on 95, a reference to the nomadic life he lived and the will to live outside the typical, outside the normal.
Stream Montana by The Dead Tongues on Spotify:
It bears repeating that Ryan Gustafson has a profound gift for recognizing the sacredness of the journey, of life, of living and connecting. It is something of a philosophical cliche about the generation coming up, but that connectedness — no matter how much we value solitude — is essential to the well-lived life. He demonstrated this with the back-to-back punch of “Like a Dream” and “The Broken Side of People Everywhere” (the latter easily one of my favorite songs of 2018). Lines full of observation and opposites abound, such as,
“I can’t tell anymore the ocean from the sands to the shore the whole from the half or the front to the back the you to me.”
And when he sang, “If you cry / let it dry and bring you near / to the broken side of people everywhere,” I can hear the yearning in his voice, his guitar.
More highlights came throughout the set, including a few songs I didn’t recognize and hope to hear again (“Hey Moon” and “Transmigration Blues,” the latter containing my favorite word from my past life as a religious person). The band left the stage for Ryan to pull the tide of “Ebb and Flow” on and off the stage and in and out of our minds. A kind of collective hypnosis fell over the audience, as the rhythmic shuffles of shoes on the ground provided a gentle percussion to go with Ryan’s banjo.
The band came back to the stage, along with Molly Sarlé, to sing the most transformative version of “Wildflower Perfume” I’ve ever had the privilege of hearing (I’ve now heard it in person four times). In the middle of the song, Ryan looked around the stage to beam a smile at his friends, his bandmates. Molly offered perfect harmonies and continued to prove that she has the most stunning voice this side of the century.
In between songs and after “Wildflower Perfume,” while Ryan tuned, Molly filled the space and time by commenting that the next song was “one of Ryan’s new ones,” eliciting a laugh from the stage and a subsequent comment that she was better with stage banter, and that sometimes he must catch his breath while tuning (due to his harmonica-playing). Then they rippled into “Deja Vu,” a new song I cannot wait to hear again.
The set ended with the closest thing he has to a radio hit in “Won’t Be Long” — a protest song, I think — and stunning new tune “Road to Heaven,” recently released as a single. “Won’t Be Long” evoked the sense that the American Dream isn’t much more than a dream anymore, whereas “Road to Heaven” was a kind of love song, hopeful and hazy.
I got to meet Ryan again after the show. He is, as always, ever gracious and sincere, as genuine a human being as I’ve ever met. If you get the chance to see him sing his songs, make sure you stay after to greet him.
Here are some more photos of The Dead Tongues performing at Jammin’ Java on Feb. 17, 2019. All photos courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.