LIVE: James McMurtry @ The Hangar, 2/24/16

James McMurtry (photo by Michael Hochanadel)
James McMurtry (photo by Michael Hochanadel)

Review by Richard Brody
Photographs by Michael Hochanadel
Additional photographs by Nancy Trageser

James McMurtry returned to Greater Nippertown without his band and hit The Hangar stage accompanied only by his six and twelve string acoustic guitars. The absence of the band might have hindered some dancing for what McMurtry might call “all the non-Baptists,” but it did provide more space to absorb his lyrics. While his superb guitar playing perfectly captures the mood of his songs, he is at heart an extraordinary lyrical storyteller. His songs reflect the bittersweet truth of life in the empty dust-ridden plains of “Levelland” – the flat central states that “coast-to-coasters” might only catch a glimpse of from their seat on a whisper jet. His most recent album, Complicated Games, stretches the geography but not the hard scrabble lives of its inhabitants. The first song that he performed from that album “Copper Canteen” opens with the lines:

Honey don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun
I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done

If this sounds like a wife and husband going at it because their time of caring for each other is gone, you’d be wrong. While the narrators of McMurtry’s songs frequently speak about life’s difficulty, some hope, humor and a knowledge of what is really important also ring out as the husband later explains:

When I wake up at night
In the grip of a fright
And you hold me so tight to your chest
And your breath on my skin
Still pulls me back in
‘til I’m weightless and then I can rest

By the time McMurtry finishes the last verse listeners feel like they know the song’s narrator. And this might mean understanding the need to uproot your family and its longtime cultural traditions. On “Long Island Sound” that meant pulling up stakes in Oklahoma and moving the family because:

The Company’s not bad as companies go
They’ve still got the health plan and they’re raising my pay

But after six years away from Tulsa, family traditions that were once rooted in the Sooner State have changed:

And the kids all play soccer like nobody’s business
My grandmother says we’re just letting them fall through
They don’t go to church and we’re not gonna make them
They all drop their R’s like the Islanders do

McMurtry rarely judges his characters; he leaves that to us. He introduced “Ain’t Got a Place” in his droll acerbic voice as a song that came from “being just about the right mix of being drunk and pissed off.” And its protagonist can’t even find comfort in the skies above no matter where he is: “They don’t suit me where I go.”

If his most recent compositions have politics embedded in the lives of the characters, an older song “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” is a full frontal attack on corporate America during the Bush years and the economic hardship that faced the working and middle class. On this evening it was a reminder that with our dysfunctional congress things have not gotten any better for many of us.

It was certainly not all doom and gloom as McMurtry also regaled the crowd with fan favorite “Choctaw Bingo,” a stream of consciousness epic about a dysfunctional family reunion headed by Uncle Slayton who “cooks his crystal meth ‘cause the shine don’t sell.” McMurtry let his twelve string ring and played at a tempo that mimicked an amphetamine rush that would have brought a smile to Slayton’s face. He concluded his set with the wry “Peter Pan,” a song about being too old to grow up, before being called back for his encore of “Lights of Cheyenne” and a reminder that sometimes things just don’t work out so you better find peace where you can.

Michael Eck began the evening with his own set of stories accompanied by Sten Isachsen who added numerous fine mandolin solos. Eck’s set contained songs from two his current projects: “Albany Murder Ballads” and songs inspired by Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” The latter contained one of the best songs of the evening: the chilling “Joe’s Song (Kate Don’t Make No Mistakes).” Eck also gave a shout-out for the upcoming Merle Haggard Tribute Night (Sunday, April 10) with a rendition of “Sing Me Back Home.” The highlight of the set was a heartfelt song written for his father, “You’re a Mountain,” that he dedicated to the recently departed John Caldwell.

It was a great evening of fabulous stories set to song by two very talented musicians.

Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “McMurtry’s records barely suggest the in-person power of his guitar. Strong clear sound perfectly delivered his lyrics: miniature novels of telling detail and deep truth about underdog lives on the ragged edge where greed has shoved working folk. His ‘We Can’t Make it Here’ hit hard as Bernie Sanders, or Jason Isbell. Songs from last year’s Complicated Game, especially ‘Copper Canteen’ and ‘Long Island Sound,’ sounded as great as chestnuts ‘Choctaw Bingo’ and ‘No More Buffalo.’ A tremendous night out, in terrible weather: machine-gun rain, strobes of lighting and streets so flooded it felt like driving in a waterfall.”

St. Mary of the Woods
Red Dress
Copper Canteen
You Got to Me
I Ain’t Got a Place
Choctaw Bingo
How’m I Gonna Find You Now
Long Island Sound
Carlisle’s Haul
No More Buffalo
Childish Things/ Restless??
Down Across the Delaware
We Can’t Make It Here
Peter Pan
Lights of Cheyenne

Bottle Rocket
Frank Is Burning
Dead Man’s Shirt
Sing Me Back Home (Merle Haggard)
You’re a Mountain
Joe’s Song (Kate Don’t Make No Mistakes)
Adam’s Song (The Wrong Side of Fair)
In My Shoes

(photo by Michael Hochanadel)
James McMurtry (photo by Michael Hochanadel)
(photo by Nancy Trageser)
James McMurtry (photo by Nancy Trageser)
Michael Eck and Sten Isachsen (photo by Nancy Trageser)
Michael Eck and Sten Isachsen (photo by Nancy Trageser)
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  1. KGB says

    Nice recap of the show, but I think Michael’s review in the Daily Gazette perfectly captured what I took away from the show “McMurtry’s records barely suggest the in-person power of his guitar. Strong clear sound perfectly delivered his lyrics…” I was taken aback at how much busier his playing was than it often is on his albums.

    This was the first time I’ve ever seen James McMurtry live, and it was worth every penny. I knew I’d enjoy him playing songs off his great new album Complicated Game, but hearing his back catalog that I hadn’t visited in a while made me want to dive back in and listen.

    I’ll definitely be checking him out whenever he makes it back to town.

  2. Fred says

    superb review

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