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Life after a band called Death

Were three black guys from Detroit the first punk band ever?

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The most compelling sequence in Charlotte filmmaker Jeff Howlett's documentary A Band Called Death was not filmed by him, but by a man who had passed away before Howlett ever knew his story.

It's a grainy home video from the '90s of Dannis Hackney's wedding, filmed by his brother David, founder of the band Death that's referred to in the film's title. David would pass away soon thereafter, but for that moment, the viewer sees things from his perspective.

It's intriguing to wonder what David's perspective is now as he posthumously watches Death, the band he created in the 1970s with his two brothers, finally enjoy the success he prophesized it would before succumbing to lung cancer in 2000. Death hadn't played in decades when David handed off a box of forgotten demos to his incredulous brother, promising that someone would come looking for them someday.

In 2009, someone did.

On April 30, that full story will be told on film and through music in Charlotte when C3 Lab in South End hosts Xperience 1, an event featuring a screening of A Band Called Death, a Q&A session with Howlett and David's nephew Bobby Hackney Jr. and a performance from Bobby Jr.'s band, Rough Francis.

Fueled by a small but passionate network of rare vinyl collectors in the punk music scene, interest in Death's rare demos (they had never released a full album) began to climb around 2008. Soon, Bobby's sons — already active in the Burlington, Vermont music scene — were hearing about Death, a band from 1970s Detroit consisting of three black guys who were playing punk music before punk music was really a thing.

They were blown away when they listened and immediately recognized their Uncle David's voice. Soon, the three teens — Bobby, Jr., Urian and Julian — formed Rough Francis and were covering their father and uncles' songs to raise awareness for the music they once made.

Howlett, who lived in Burlington, had known the Hackney family since the '90s, when a band he was in played a show with Lambsbread, the reggae band David's two brothers, Bobby Sr. and Dannis, formed after Death disbanded. Like most of their friends and family, Howlett had no idea the Hackneys had ever played rock music. He ran into Bobby Jr. in 2009 and agreed to check out a Rough Francis show.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"Bobby Jr. came up to me and said, 'We're going to be covering some of my dad's music at a local bar. You should come out.' I figured it would be reggae stuff because when I played with [his father] with my band they were playing reggae," Howlett says. "When they started playing, my mind just exploded. It was like, 'Holy crap.' The more I found out about it from that point, I was completely sold. I was like, 'I have to figure out a way we can make this happen. We can do something.'"

What began with Howlett grabbing a camera and asking Bobby Jr. to tell his story from a bench in Burlington gradually transformed into a full fledge documentary that was released in 2012 and has since streamed on mainstream sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

"[Jeff] was one of the first people to catch wind of the story," Bobby Jr. says, speaking over the phone from Burlington. "He was really intrigued. He wanted to do something, anything, and it kind of snowballed from there. He started with me sitting on the bench, doing interviews with me and my brothers and my father and mom. He brought on [co-director Mark Corvino], things just started happening. More people started to tune in and more famous people were starting to talk about it. They ended up getting some people from Hollywood to help produce and add more of a budget. Before you know it, we're all in California hanging out at a movie premiere in L.A. It's pretty surreal how it all happened so quick."

During this time, Bobby Sr. and Dannis had gotten back together, added guitarist Bobbie Duncan to replace David, and revived Death. They eventually signed a deal — something they couldn't manage to do in the '70s thanks to an intimidating band name and stereotypes of what "black music" should be. They released an album titled ...For The Whole World To See and continue to tour the world and gather fans.

Howlett is also still touring with Death, or at least with the film he made about them. He's done screenings as far away as Europe, but the C3 Lab screening will be special for him; it will be the first time he's had Rough Francis on hand for a Q&A and performance. Local band Dirtbag Love Affair, who recently reunited, will open for Rough Francis.

"To me this screening is super special because it's the first time that Bobby Jr. and I have actually done a Q&A together," Howlett says. "It started with me and Bobby sitting down by Lake Champlain [in Burlington] with a camera shooting an interview. That's how it all started. I think it's going to be a really special Q&A from that perspective."

Bobby Jr., who has never performed in Charlotte, says he's excited to perform and to see Jeff, whom he looked up to as a budding musician in Burlington. Jeff moved to Charlotte from Burlington in the late stages of the film's production and the two haven't seen each other in a year.

"It's awesome. We've never been invited to do an event like this," Bobby Jr., says. "It's our first time being specifically requested to do something like this so we're just going to have a good time and we're really stoked to come down."

While it may seem like Howlett's mission to bring Death more exposure is accomplished, the buzz continues to build. He says curators at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open in September, plan to include an exhibit about Death, in which his movie will play a part. The honor is fitting for a man who repeatedly referred to his film not as a documentary but as a "document" during our conversation.

"That's history. That's actual African American history," Howlett says. "That gives me chills. That's what makes my heart beat for this story, is stories like that."

As much as the movie serves as historical documentation of one of music's greatest stories, Howlett and Corvino also did an amazing job of interlacing themes of family, struggle and aspiration.

From David's strong spiritual outlook on death — which inspired his stubbornness in keeping the band's name even when it cost them a record deal — to his battle with alcoholism and lung cancer, the story always loops back to a mantra that was ingrained in the Hackney boys by their parents throughout their childhood: Always back your brother.

"When we started filming this thing, it was like, 'This is a really cool story about you guys but there's a deep emotional avenue that we haven't even explored yet,'" Howlett says. "When we started exploring that and seeing what we actually got back, it blew our minds. It told us this is not just a historical document, but more of a document about family, love and respect. That's what you really do it for, when you're a filmmaker you want to make a story. Like if you're a writer, you want to tell a good story."

Despite the measures he's already taken to spread the story of Death, Howlett is still working at it. He calls himself an advocate for getting good music out there, and he's been working on getting Death and Rough Francis out there for a good seven years.

"I feel like — even still — in a lot of avenues the band has been sort of left behind, and that happens with a lot of bands that are garage bands that sort of never see the light of day," Howlett says. "You probably know good examples yourself of bands from Charlotte that, 'They were a great band. I remember when they played years ago and they were the shit, and they recorded an album, but then they just ... what happened to them?' It's just like telling people a story. If you're excited about a movie, if you're excited about music or a band, you want to tell people about it. When I tell people about it, it gets me excited."

As Howlett has been doing everything he can to shed light on Death, Bobby Jr. has worked to get out from the band's shadow.

When Death reunited and began playing their own music, Rough Francis — named after a moniker used by David Hackney in a short-lived solo effort — didn't need to cover them anymore. The three brothers, joined by friends Paul Comegno and Steve Williams, began to write their own music.

"The thing is, most people know that we're the sons of Death and we're connected to the movie and the story, but for the most part when we go out and tour we're Rough Francis," Bobby Jr. says. "We're our own band like any other band that goes out there. If people happen to know that we're connected to Death, that's awesome, but if people don't, that's totally cool as well because we just want to be an awesome band that people want to come out and see."

Bobby Jr., as much an advocate for the revival of his dad's now legendary band as anyone, found it tough going at first. He says Rough Francis has since found its own identity, while keeping a few attributes from the Death cover days, or that were possibly already handed down genetically.

"We're definitely a much different band than we were in 2009," he says. "When we first started writing our own stuff it was like a musical identity crisis, because it was hard to get out of Death's shadow and be our own band. We still have the same energy and mindset that Death did with our own music and we just take it from there. The energy and spirit of Death is definitely in our original music."

He says the band will play Rough Francis songs at the C3 Lab Xperience show with a few Death songs peppered in here and there.

Looking back now, Howlett recalls how the wedding video that serves as a certain turning point in the film almost never came to be.

"We kept going back, saying, 'Do you guys have any other photos, any video, what do you got?' Dannis was like, 'We have this video. It's just David filming the wedding.' I'm like, 'David filmed the what? We've got to see this,'" he says.

In the video, David zooms in on each brother, his two former bandmates whom he learned from a young age to back up at any cost. The camera shakes uncontrollably at times. It's indicative of the condition David was in. Just before signing off, he puts his face in front of the camera. He does not look well.

"When I first saw the camera, the way he was holding it, I could see he was having [delirium tremens] and stuff like that, and the camera was just shaking. At that point it was from abstinence from alcohol, but the cancer had taken over. It was just like, 'Oh my God.' It was so heavy. Then he comes in frame, and it still gives me chill bumps. When he actually comes into frame while filming, it hits me hard," Howlett says.

The moment places the viewer in David's shoes, and never removes them. One may see the rest of the story as David in a way; posthumously but proudly watching as his brothers are recognized by music fans around the world, as he knew they would be.

Once the movie wraps up at C3 Lab on Saturday and the music begins, it will be hard to look at the show from any perspective other than David's. After watching how hard he fought in support of Death, then entering a fight for his life before finally gaining the recognition he deserved, it's a powerful perspective to have.

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