Review by Richard Brody
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
James McMurtry is a storyteller. Not surprising, considering his father is a book collector and a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. However it was not the books that interested young James, but his father’s stories at the dinner table and family gatherings. That is where he got his first sense of narrative, and the wry stories that comprise his best songs followed.
McMurtry is not just a writer; his guitar playing gives a sense of time and place that supports each song’s lyrical content. In concert at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre last week, that was evident from the first song of the evening, “Bayou Tortue;” the swamp guitar underscoring the protagonist’s roving eye and a late night that left him coming home to his wife without a “decent lie.”
Romantic ordeals and coming to terms with middle age are not unique themes, but few writers can portray them like McMurtry. In “Just Us Kids” he takes us from the wild, anything-is-possible perspective of youth to the reality of our lives as parents. Backed by his solid rhythm section of Daren Hess on drums and Michael “Cornbread” Traylor on bass, McMurtry played with the volume on this tune until fading it out with the lines:
Just us kids hangin’ out today
Watchin’ our long hair turnin’ gray
Not so skinny maybe not so free
Not so many as we used to be
There were many other tried and true McMurtry songs including “Hurricane Party” with McMurtry on acoustic guitar accentuating the loneliness of the protagonist weathering yet another storm. Both “No More Buffalo” and “Levelland” speak to the struggles of the working class living in America’s heartland. As he frequently does, McMurtry uses metaphor on these songs to great effect.
Several new songs, which will be on an upcoming late fall release, were introduced. “Copper Canteen,” a song about growing up, featured soundman Tim Holt on squeezebox. “Long Island Sound,” a story about a transplanted Midwesterner, got a big response from the audience. Maybe it was the mention of the Rangers and the Knicks or perhaps it was a knowing sympathy for the narrator who was stuck on the Whitestone Bridge during rush hour because the Long Island Distressway was backed up bumper to bumper.
There was also some of the caustic humor that McMurtry is known for. “Looks like we got a little bit of dance space for all you non-Baptists here. The rest of you can imitate Methodists.” What followed was the crown jewel of his set: the rambling family-reunion crystal-meth road epic, “Choctaw Bingo.” McMurtry and the band did their best to simulate an amphetamine rush as they drove the song with intensity unlike any other. The song’s cast of characters was large, led by Slayton, the family patriarch, who “cooks that crystal meth because the shine don’t sell” and “plays Choctaw Bingo every Friday night.” And let’s not forget the childcare instruction for road trips to said family reunions: “Strap them kids in, give ‘em a little bit of vodka in a Cherry Coke.” Needless to say, everyone had a real good time.
The evening didn’t just belong to McMurtry. The Bottle Rockets began the evening with an excellent set that featured a number of songs from their first two albums (recently repackaged into a deluxe single edition that also contains bonus tracks, some of which will be reworked for an upcoming album). Led by vocalist Bryan Henneman on guitar, with Mark Ortman on drums, Keith Voegele on bass and John Horton on guitar, this road-tested band was on fire from their first notes.
At times their rhythmic crunch recalled late seventies Crazy Horse, and at others Henneman’s Rickenbacker hinted at the Byrds and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Their songs, particularly “1000 Dollar Car” and “Welfare Music” (featuring Henneman and Horton trading licks), focused on the struggles of blue collar workers, while “Stuck in Indianapolis,” a tale of a struggling band whose car broke down, sounded very autobiographical. Fortunately for us, the band got out of Indianapolis and made it to Albany.
John Rodat’s review at Metroland
JAMES McMURTRY SET LIST
What’s the Matter (new song)
Just Us Kids
How Am I Gonna Find You Now (new song)
You’d A’Thought (Leonard Cohen Must Die)
Long Island Sound (new song)
Copper Canteen (new song)
No More Buffalo
Things I’ve Come to Know (new song)