Obscured in fog so thick it’s nearly opaque, while colored lights illuminate their faces with strange hues, the two members of Crook & the Bluff make impressive figures onstage. With a strong commitment to not only their music—what they call “ambient Western blues”—but also the visual side of their performances, guitarist/lead vocalist Kirk Dath and lead guitarist/backing vocalist Tad Wilford take their entire stage presence into their own hands. That DIY work ethic is echoed in everything from their handmade pedal boards to lighting effects and stage makeup—even homemade fog bubbles.
“We always do our own lights and everything; we like being theatrical,” Dath says. “The music is obviously the main thing, but we want it to be a show.”
Dath and Wilford met in 2007, as roommates, but didn’t officially become a band until six months ago, after Dath’s previous collaborator moved away. Wilford is originally from Colorado, and Dath is from the East Coast, where as a kid, he and his mom lived in an apartment above a blues bar. “The blues have always had like a really good feeling to me,” Dath says. “I’ve always just associated with that rhythm, that motion.”
Crook & the Bluff say that blues is the “foundation” of their sound, which is largely experimental and includes psych-rock and country elements. “Blues is the tree trunk, and then what we play is the branches,” Wilford says. But the most significant influence on their sound isn’t a genre of music, but a landscape. Crook & the Bluff was “born in the desert,” he says.
After both spending a lot of time roaming the Western wilds, “we really feel at home there,” Dath says. “There’s a stillness to the desert … it’s probably the most intense magical place.” Crook & the Bluff’s sound takes cues from the surreal region’s strange, but beautiful, vibes.
“You think [the desert] is just desolate and solitude, but when you’re in it, it’s alive,” Dath says. “I like to think that our music is like the perfect music to hear if you were sitting around a campfire taking mushrooms because it’s like the sound of the wind howling through the canyons, making all these incredible huge noises.”
The past few months, Crook & the Bluff have been busy making the rounds at local venues including Bar Deluxe—where they opened for Murder by Death in September—and Bar-X. Their loud (emphasis on the loud) live show is achieved by a fortress of amps, which creates a sound so large and engrossing that it’s easy to forget they don’t have any percussion in their lineup. “That’s the thing is with a two-piece, you have to be interesting and dynamic, otherwise you’re just singer-songwriters, and … you just have a small sound,” Dath says.
A Crook & the Bluff show wouldn’t be complete without two fog machines—nicknamed Chad and Mr. Cool—and 8mm film images projected onto their bodies and the background behind them, along with an arsenal of different types of lights that are controlled through their pedal boards. When they performed at Craft Lake City in the summer, they even got crafty by creating their own large-scale bubble wands that could make bubbles “the size of Volkswagen Beetles,” Dath says, which were then filled with fog and released to float into the audience.
The band has plans to hole up over the winter and create their debut album, which they hope to release in March. Until then, you can listen to a couple of songs on their Facebook page, but the best way to hear Crook & the Bluff’s music is in concert. Their set usually includes songs such as the sexy “Blood Black,” which Dath says is about “foreplay,” “Honey”—a chugging and biting rocker that really shows off the duo’s complementary guitar skills—and “Devilish Deeds,” which features not only Dath’s rich, husky voice, but also his harmonica style.
However you experience Crook & the Bluff, expect the unexpected. “We only wanna get weirder,” Dath says.