Imagine, if you will, that it’s 1846 and you have set out with your family to California on a wagon trail. However, due to a series of mishaps and misfortunes, you end up stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter. As supplies become scarce, you realize that your options have dwindled, and in order to survive, you must resort to cannibalism. Does this story sound familiar? It should, as it’s the true account of The Donner Party, and the story has been told over and over again, in one form of another, for the past 150 years.

Fast forward to this year, and the story of the Donner Party has been revisioned once again by cult film composers Terrance Zdunich (Repo! The Genetic Opera) and Saar Hendelman (The Devil’s Carnival) for the next chapter in their American Murder Song saga. For those who may not be familiar with American Murder Song, Zdunich and Hendelman, as characters Mister Tender and Mister Storm, have composed a series of “bloody tales, ballads and music videos that feature killers pushing west in the young America of 1816.”

During this year’s Halloween season, Zdunich and Hendelman decided to hit the road once again for the release of their newest album The Donner Party. The show, titled The Black Wagon, encompasses lyrical songs inspired by 1846 America and the tragedy that befell The Donner Party. Though, in theory, a very depressing notch in American history, Hendelman and Zdunich do an extraordinary job of bringing this story to life in musical ballads that are both heartbreaking and uplifting.

In regards to the performances, Zdunich and Hendelman both exceeded my expectations. Having seen them perform a year ago for the EP release of American Murder Song, and having been familiar with their work in films, my expectations were high, but even so, they ended up blowing me away. What I really enjoy seeing is how perfectly they work off one another. Zdunich who has more of a baritone voice syncs up beautifully with Hendelman’s soprano, making it easy to fall under the spells of the stories they have crafted in lyrical form.

I also enjoyed the update to the set design from the year prior. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t like what the first show had to offer, I just found myself more drawn to this design in particular. Surrounding Zdunich and Hendelman were three walls, one which had a window overlooking a wintery landscape (perfect setting for The Donner Party). To the right of the window was a video that played throughout the evening, mostly showing the band in cartoon skeleton forms. Throughout the performance there was two brief intermissions where a violinist played music from some of history’s favorite spooky shows and movies. During this time a video that corresponded with that music appeared on the wall in black and white. Though this all sounds simple in nature, the execution was seamless and correlated wonderfully with the overall experience.

With all that said, The Black Wagon tour is an event that I’m so glad I was able to experience. Saar and Terrance once again show us just how incredibly talented, passionate, and creative they. American Murder Song is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and I’ve found myself becoming that much more drawn into the world they have created with their characters, Mister Tender and Mister Storm, as well as learning a deeper knowledge of America in the 1800’s. Though the show I saw was the last one of their tour, I would highly suggest following American Murder Song on social media to learn more about these performances and to stay updated on any announcements. I would say that Saar and Terrance surely can’t top their Black Wagon tour, but it seems that they keep surprising me at every turn, so I can only imagine what they have in store for their fans in the future. Until next time… stay hungry…

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Shannon McGrew
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