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.”
His songs are so real, you feel you can talk to his characters and recognize them in a police line-up. They’re a little dangerous and unpredictable. Yes, James McMurtry – who plays at Valentine’s Music Hall in Albany on Wednesday night – takes you through an entire feature-length movie in three to five minutes, and he rocks out like Crazy Horse in the process.
No wonder Stephen King says McMurtry’s highest profile song, “We Can’t Make It Here” from McMurtry’s just re-released “Childish Things” album, “may be the best American protest song since (Dylan’s) ‘Masters of War.’ Love it or hate, you’ll never forget it.”
You can easily understand why King would like McMurtry. Both are American gothic. Both are like Johnny Cash, who painted pictures of characters who are, well, not normal, but when you look King, Cash or McMurtry in the eye, you’re not sure those characters aren’t all diced up pieces of their own personae, and that each is living out fantasies through their works that could easily play out in reality if any of the three would happen to trip over the right circumstances.
You might expect McMurtry to be a big fan of King’s horror novels.
Texas songwriter James McMurtry has made the Capital Region a regular tour stop throughout his career, beginning 20 years ago with a solo gig at the long-gone Saratoga Winners.
Usually he’s seen with a full-throttle rhythm section behind him, but Thursday night he made his Hudson debut with a now rare solo performance at Club Helsinki Hudson.
For much of the evening McMurtry made up for the lack of a band by letting a twelve-string ring out his mesmerizing open-tuned changes. There was a touch of Lead Belly in the bottom end and the jangle of Roger McGuinn in the top, but there were also plenty of snaky Richard Thompson-like passages tangled in between the lyrics.
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