LIVE: Gurf Morlix @ the Ale House, 5/17/15
Review by Fred Rudofsky
Based out of Austin but originally from the Buffalo area, highly regarded singer-songwriter-guitarist Gurf Morlix is no stranger to Nippertown, having played shows at Valentine’s, Caffe Lena and the Ale House, where he returned for an intimate solo show on a recent Sunday evening that he joked was “only looking like the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition.”
Wielding an old acoustic guitar that featured a yellow police caution tape as its strap, Morlix brought his soulful, sandpaper voice and percussion board (he tapped out the tempo with his feet) to 17 vivid songs, primarily drawn from his excellent new album Eatin’ at Me. To set the candid, enticing tone for the set, however, Morlix first went back to 2009’s Last Exit to Happyland for “One More Second,” a noir song about murder and revenge.
Morlix’s tangents prior to “Dirty Old Buffalo” were inspired: he addressed a recent Mother Jones review of the new album’s cover (“They called it ‘spectacularily ugly album art’ I call them insectiphobes!”) and reminisced about growing up in Lackawanna, where the air was usually fine, unlike nearby Buffalo, “the rust belt city,” where the skies would glow orange from the noxious emissions of the Bethlehem Steel plant.
The delicate melody of “Blue Smoke,” the haunted denizen of LA in “Elephant’s Graveyard” (“his dreams begin at dawn/his nightmares at noon”), and heartbreaking portrayal of hitting rock-bottom, “Orphan Tears,” formed a perfect trifecta of grim outcast stories. Yet levity was never far from Morlix’s orbit, as he recollected how an aloof dog-owner in Santa Monica had inspired “The Dog I Am,” a hilariously scatological first-person – or first-canine – account of life on four legs.
Few songwriters hit the mark quite like Morlix does when it comes to portraying romantic angst and the enduring images of the past. “Trying to Do the Best We Can” offered a cynical, yet realistic look at humanity (“we might be made of stardust/ but that don’t make us special”) and deep sense of loss in “My Heart’s Been Torn in Two.” Later in the set, Morlix offered “50 Years,” a slow, finger-picked, class-conscious depiction of school days filled with sneakers, amplifiers, girls, burnouts and other marginal folks who someday will realize that “Life is no mystery/it’s a one-act play.” Introduced as a song about “a soulful city that had so many impediments to overcome, “Born in Lackawanna” personified the underdog qualities of Morlix’s hometown.
While many know of Morlix’s tenure with Lucinda Williams over a decade ago, he took the time to honor his other great friendships. He paid tribute to the late Ian McLagan, who had lived in Austin for 20 years. “Mac shone a light whenever you were in his presence,” Morlix declared.
Likewise, so did the late Ronnie Lane, McLagan’s bandmate in the Small Faces and the Faces. Morlix’s rendition of “Annie” from Rough Mix, the classic Ronnie Lane-Pete Townshend album from 1977, was truly from the heart. “The Voice of Midnight,” written after McLagan’s late wife Kim died in 2006 in a traffic accident, was hauntingly beautiful and capped by the simple image of “I’ll be searching for your eyes…”
A double shot of alcohol-related songs made their way into the set. Juxtaposing the notorious Scottish massacre tale of Jim McLean’s “The Ballad of Glencoe” with the Skeletons’ swaggering ode to intoxication, “Waiting for the Gin to Hit Me” (dedicated to the band’s late Lou Whitney, who had also played in the Morells), was a startling move, but it worked.
To close out the set, Morlix showed tremendous pluck in his traditional song choices, too. “The Crawdad Song” – prefaced by a surreal story of catching a five-pound large mouth bass in Canada and letting it watch television for several seconds before releasing it back into the lake – mixed sly cadences and rhythm/lead riffing to the crowd’s satisfaction. “This May Be the Last Time,” a gospel touchstone associated with the Staple Singers, was sung in a virtual whisper against a sparse melody line and eerie toe-tapping beat. Eschewing the artifice of being called back for an encore (“What a bunch of horseshit that is!”), Morlix applied a bit of Mance Lipscomb finger-picking to a “Texas-fied” take on the Celtic ode to bittersweet farewells, “The Parting Glass.” The Clancy Brothers would have been impressed.
After the show, Morlix stuck around for well over an hour to chat with fans and sign autographs. “I love playing the Ale House!” he exclaimed when asked about a return to Troy. Expect Mr. Morlix to honor that expectation again some time soon.
GURF MORLIX SET LIST
One More Second
Dirty Old Buffalo
The Dog I Am
Trying to Do the Best We Can
My Heart’s Been Torn in Two (Morlix & Picott)
Annie (Katie Lambert, Ronnie Lane & Eric Clapton)
The Ballad of Glen Coe (Jim McLean)
Waiting for the Gin to Hit Me (the Skeletons)
Born in Lackwanna
The Voice of Midnight
The Crawdad Song (traditional)
This May Be the Last Time (traditional)
The Parting Glass (traditional)