Dax Riggs, a slight-framed, cherub-faced bluesman from Houma, La., didn’t bring much with him to his set at the Putnam Den on Sunday night. He had his Guild acoustic guitar, a small amp, a ragged pair of pants, a white T-shirt, and a pair of shoes worn down to an indeterminate color—tied extra tight to his feet. He also brought a bassist. The pair set up on two small folding chairs, their drinks—beer, shots, water—placed on a cheap white table between them. The crowd, a mass of burly men sporting stereotypical angry-dude facial hair and skull-emblazoned T-shirts along with their tipsy girlfriends, buzzed like angry hornets pushing up against the stage.
Riggs set a busted-up lyric book on a stand in front of him, briefly consulted with his bassist, pulled his guitar tightly to his chest, and eased out a cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” His voice rang deep across the bar as he began a stunning set of covers suited to his particular heartbreaking moan and fascination with the beauty of death.
In the mid ’90s, Riggs fronted Louisiana metal band Acid Bath, singing death-obsessed tunes like “What Color Is Death,” “Dr. Seuss Is Dead,” and “Pagan Love Song,” blessing the group’s relentless grinding doom with melancholy soul. The group’s work has been particularly obsessed over in the local metal and hardcore scene and has even gained popularity since the group last released a disc in 1996. Riggs immediately moved on to glam-rock band Agents of Oblivion, which ended almost as quickly as it began—but managed to release a record to satisfy label demands. In 2000, Riggs fronted Deadboy and the Elephantmen, a gothic blues group that morphed into a stripped-down blues-bop group who appeared to ape the White Stripes’ dynamic. His last two discs—We Sing Only of Love or Blood and Say Goodnight to the World—featured short, snappy blasts of blues punk and gothic blues ballads. But the live equation never stayed the same: Some shows were simply a miracle to behold, while others saw the seemingly fragile Riggs unable to gel with the full band around him.
On Sunday, Riggs seemed as close to peace as I’ve ever seen him and near as perfect as humanly possible. He seemed nervous as drunk women propositioned him between songs, but he kept dropping gorgeous and inspired covers. “Gloomy Sunday,” a song perhaps best known as sung by Billie Holliday, came moaning out of Riggs like it could have been a song born in his tortured mind. It was an anthem of sorts for Riggs’ ability to revel in endings, release and agony. Folksong “St. James Infirmary,” Rev. Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy in This Land,” and a particularly rousing version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs” all rounded out Riggs’ amazing covers. But he also broke out some Deadboy and solo work like “Ancient Man,” “Gravedirt on My Blue Suede Shoes,” and the explosive “Oroboros.” Perhaps the most interesting turn of Riggs’ set was a newfound political interest. It poked out in his cover of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore” and expanded in his cover of Lee Hazelwood’s “No Train to Stockholm.” But it exploded into existence in his own song, “I Hear Satan,” where he crooned, “I hear Satan in the basement of the Pentagon.” In one of his few utterances of the show, he dedicated the song to journalist Michael Hastings’ “corpse.”
Riggs seemed to find some safety in the crowd of misfits, and his set was an enchanting, soul-devouring sort that left me with a kind of warm despair—the way “What a Wonderful World” does because of all the darkness that lies underneath the sweetness.