Live Review | Various Venues | Review by Keith Belcher
Greystones (Sheffield), Oran Mor (Glasgow), The Cluny (Newcastle), The Maze (Nottingham) and The Brudenell Club (Leeds)
Support Alice Drinks the Kool Aid (all gigs)
Nathan Bell – Glasgow Only
“The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation…” – Stephen King
“James McMurtry writes songs filled with characters so real that you’re sure they’re going to climb out of the speakers and look you in the eyes.” – Voice of America
OK, it should be obvious that I like James McMurtry. Five shows in six days. It would have been six from six but I missed out Manchester as I don’t like the vaccinations on the Yorkshire border, driving to or parking there and am not over keen on most venues either. He is not a prolific visitor to our shores. This was his third UK visit. He first toured in January to February 2009 with The Heartless Bastards, who included the late, great Ian McClagan on keyboards. That was quickly followed by a shorter tour later that year in October 2009. This year he undertook a gruelling 31 dates in 31 days UK and European tour with band members Tim Holt – Guitar & Accordion, Cornbread – Bass Guitar and Darren Hess on Drums. If you want a warm engaging stage personality, bantering freely with the crowd, smiling and cracking jokes throughout then he is NOT for you. If you like possibly the best lyrics in rock, delivered clearly and audibly backed by a hard driving rock and roll outfit with great melodies and rhythms and about 2-3 minutes of dialogue per set then you might like him.
Greystones, Sheffield was my first gig of this tour. It seemed pretty well sold out which surprisingly was not the case for all venues. Most venues were very loud, had good balanced sound, lighting was passable in some and dismal in most, audiences were all appreciative. The performance was powerful and driving throughout the tour. It is stuff you can dance to should the mood strike. Even my aged limbs twitched throughout the shows. McMurtry and band manage the rare feat of achieving driving rock and roll music with the most scathing but at times intense, personal and insightful lyrics which are always uppermost in the mix. The song and story are always the main ingredients but the music is a great side dish. Like most ‘cult’ artists the audiences knew their stuff and were very familiar with both his personality and his songs. McMurtry lyrics, in many cases are delivered with pure venom by a scowling master of the craft. “You can’t unclench your teeth, To howl the way you should, So you curl your lips around, The taste of tears and the hollow sound, That no one owns but you, No one owns but you”. (Ruby & Carlos)
Unusually, in my experience, from a touring American artist, the set list was exactly the same each night. Even more unusual was that it was in exactly the same order. The sparse minimalist dialogue was also almost identical each night. Slight variations in that Glasgow had less songs and also had a set from Nathan Bell. Occasionally he didn’t do an encore. The audience at Sheffield probably shouted more requests than other venues but these were basically sneered at and turned aside. He really doesn’t do the warm engaging thing with his audiences! At most venues he sarcastically compared the atmosphere to a library rather than a bar! As I said, a warm, endearing and engaging stage manner isn’t his thing or if it is it isn’t apparent to most onlookers. I gather from friends that the sets at London and Norwich were also identical. He did however, change the encore of “Lights of Cheyenne” to “Peter Pan” at a Dutch gig in Hoorne. On his 2009 tours I remember him remarking his real job was being a Beer Salesman. That in part was very true for his support act this tour.
Support for the UK was Alice Drinks the Kool Aid. A three-piece blues based Chicago band fronted by Guitarist and Vocalist Tony Magee with Drummer Jim Widlowski and Bassist Alan Berliant. Tony is the owner of Lagunitas Brewing Company and during the tour he was giving away free Lagunitas beer (An American IPA 6.2 ABV), which not surprisingly went down well, after some initial suspicion. Possibly this was a beer sales promotion tour. Some people seemed to like their sound but I am afraid they did absolutely nothing for me. Alan and Jim seemed very competent musicians but their groove based riffs at time seemed very dated and lost a lot of coordination and coherence. Support at Glasgow also included Nathan Bell but more on him and Glasgow later.
The McMurtry sets generally opened with a brief McMurtry style greeting, “How You Doin’? Good to See You” and then James, Cornbread and Darren were straight into the music with Bayou Tortous from the 2008 album Just Us Kids. The Just Us Kids album was without a doubt his most political album with songs like “God Bless America”, Cheney’s “Toy and the Governor”. “We Can’t Make it Here” from the 2005 album “Childish Things” probably being his strongest political statement. It was fairly obvious early on in this tour that the fans were expecting political statement with some requests for “Bannon’s Toy” (based on Cheney’s Toy about Bush being a Puppet for Cheney), particularly after the recent ascension by the Orange One. No political engagement was forthcoming from the Band. In fact there was very little spoken engagement with the audiences of any kind. They let the songs and music do the talking. I doubt that on stage dialogue amounted to more than two or three minutes each gig and to be honest, it was near enough the same phrases night after night. “Red Dress” followed, this song from both 2004’s Live in Aught-Three and 2002’s Saint Mary of the Woods. Surely the only rock song to quote Winston Churchill’s address to Bessie Braddock. A very brief chat then straight into the unrecorded “What’s the Matter”. “Just Us Kids” followed which has such a casual, almost Tom Waits-like throwaway line, “It’s a Damn Short Movie, How’d We Ever get Here”, it’s not “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” but probably as pertinent about age catching up with you when you least expect it to. Tim Holt then joined the Band on stage to play Lead Guitar and accordion.
Songs from 2015’s Complicated Games followed. An album of deeply introspective, personal songs demonstrating his wonderful way of detailing relationships. A true storyteller. His father, Larry McMurtry is responsible for screenplays to Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show and Brokeback Mountain so there are strong literary genes in his bloodline. “How’m I Gonna Find You Now? Copper Canteen” featuring the great lines “We Grew Up Hard, And Our Children Don’t Know What That Means, We Turned Into Our Parents Before We Were Out Of Our Teens”, “You Got to Me” and “Ain’t Got a Place” followed. A brief break from that album to “one we sing in Church”, a superb rocking version of perennial crowd favourite and multi versed Choctaw Bingo, again from Aught Three and Saint Mary of the Woods. Back to the latest album for a solo, acoustic guitar version of “These Things I’ve Come to Know”. In his approximation of a joke he quipped that the next song “Painting by Numbers” from 1989’s debut album Too Long in the Wasteland as meant to be his first ‘Radio Hit’. It did get to 33 in the Main US Rock Chart but sadly his career as a radio hit maker was never really going to happen. “Every Little Bit Counts” from 1998’s Walk Between the Raindrops moved nicely to “another Church Song”, “Childish Things” with, besides the obvious St Paul/Corinthians reference, the great opening lines, “Aunt Clara kept her bible right next to the phone, In case she needed a quote while she talked to someone”. From the same album came Restless before the stunningly visual tale of dreams not achieved and the dangers of self-delusion “No More Buffalo” from 1997’s It Had to Happen.
To finish the set he offered the usual invitation to see him at The Continental Club in Austin, Texas if you happened to be there on a Wednesday night (isn’t everyone?) Another crowd favourite “Too Long in the Wasteland” finished the set proper. At most gigs he reappeared to do a solo encore of “Lights of Cheyenne” from Live in Aught-Three. Although the set lists and for a huge part the dialogue were identical the instrumental licks and performances did vary. The band was extremely tight throughout the tour, Tim, Cornbread and Darren all trading riffs and working off each other. Let’s hope he doesn’t leave it another 7-8 years before returning. Sound varied around the gigs. Personally I thought Leeds and Sheffield had the best sound and Nottingham by far the worst. It was so loud and bass heavy at Nottingham that I felt I had had a sonic massage by the end of the night. Beer glasses were vibrating off tables!! Unlike the 2009 tours the man “shamelessly promoted himself” (his words) at the Merch desk after the show. He even posed for some selfies and was smiling. Perhaps time mellows all. His usual farewell was “In the meantime tip your bartender, be nice to the doorman, Be careful getting home and if you don’t, be nice to the nice Officer”.
I suspect Glasgow was meant to be James McMurtry supported by Nathan Bell or even a double header. Last time in 2009 he was supported by David Olney accompanied by ace guitarist Sergio Webb who did an amazing set. However this year, Alice Drinks the Kool Aid did a slightly shorter than usual set followed by Nathan Bell. This meant McMurtry’s set was shortened. I had not seen Nathan live before and he was a revelation. This was his Scottish debut appearance and he came on after a loud set to a very noisy crowd and managed with the aid of just an acoustic guitar, harmonica, a sparkling personality and a very strong voice to quieten the audience with his first song “All That You Carry”, even joking about having no beer to give away! He engaged knowledgably about football (our version) and pulled no punches with his opinions of The Orange One before launching into “Raise Your Fist” which is dedicated to Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman, famous for their Human Rights Salute at the 1968 Olympics. If he didn’t have the audience before he certainly did afterwards. His songs, to me, were somewhere between early Darrell Scott and Bruce Springsteen especially Jesus of Gary, Indiana. He was funny while relating a geography lesson on the UK given to a fellow American who didn’t have a clue. His guitar work way above good on “North Georgia Blues”. Hard Weather followed, a song from a forthcoming album aptly named Love Fear – 48 Hours in Traitorland keeping with the theme of the average working man in current times. “Rust” was particularly powerful. To keep with his soccer analogies one reviewer put some of his songs in the Clarke/Van Zandt/Cash and Peter Rowan leagues and I would agree. His two remaining songs were just as well received and also just as powerful. Definitely a person to keep an eye out for. It would be an understatement to say the audience who, even though awaiting James McMurtry, wanted more. They would have liked a whole lot more. I was lucky enough to see him again later that night when he made a short appearance at The Late Night Sessions at The Drygates Brewery where he played some different songs and went down just as well as his Oran Mor appearance. I will certainly keep an eye out for his shows later this year.
All lyrics quoted were written by James McMurtry.