Concert Review: LJ Murphy and Band at the Knitting Factory, NYC 12/11/07
Ironic that some of New York’s best rock songwriters – Jerome O’Brien of the Dog Show, Mary Lee Kortes of Mary Lee’s Corvette, and now LJ Murphy – basically play with what amounts to a pickup band whenever they do a live show here in town. Although it’s not all that common in rock, jazz players have been doing this since the beginning. And it works more often than not, undoubtedly because musicians who are good enough to follow the changes and hit the stage without much rehearsal usually bring a lot of imagination and their own signature style. This show was a vivid reminder of how good things can get when you put together a bunch of good players who’ve never played with each other before. Tonight the dapper New York noir songwriter was backed by the hard-hitting drummer from the sadly disbanded garage rockers the Dark Marbles, along with the bass player from Erica Smith’s band the 99 Cent Dreams. Playing lead was the guitarist from System Noise, who revealed himself to be a terrific blues player, channeling a lot of Hendrix into Murphy’s Stax/Volt-inflected melodies. But it wasn’t Star Spangled Banner Hendri; instead, the audience was treated to a lot of thoughtful, introspective, licks and tersely unwinding solos evocative of the Little Wing/Castles Made of Sand side of Jimi.
Perhaps because the band didn’t get a lot of time to rehearse, Murphy bookended the show with a couple of solo acoustic songs, the tongue-in-cheek Man Impossible and a somewhat drastic reworking of his haunting domestic-abuse saga, Don’t You Look Pretty When You Cry. In between, the band careened through a mix of newer material and songs from Murphy’s latest cd Mad Within Reason. It was a cold night, and Murphy’s guitar had gone out of tune by the time he finished his first song and brought the band to the stage. The crowd was impatient as Murphy retuned: “He’s a musician,” the bass player said sarcastically: shades of Stiv Bators sticking up for Cheetah Chrome on Night of the Living Dead Boys? You never know. This is New York, after all.
Like Marcellus Hall, (recently reviewed here), Murphy sets intelligent, witty lyrics to somewhat retro melodies. While Hall draws on 60s country and folk-rock, Murphy is a disciple of blues and jazz, Ray Charles in particular. At the end of a rousing take of the snide, somewhat caustic Imperfect Strangers, Murphy led the band on an obviously improvised, extended outro as he jammed out the vocals. Later in the set they did a boisterous version of the sharply literate, cabaret-ish minor key blues which serves as the title track to the cd, in addition to a soulful take of the gently swaying, mournful 6/8 ballad that’s perhaps improbably Murphy’s biggest audience hit, Saturday’s Down, a chronicle of how the week goes by so slowly but the weekend is gone in a nanosecond. The band turned their last song, Barbwire Playpen into a blazing rocker, Murphy roaring through his chronicle of a Wall Street tycoon whose “ugly little secret turns up again and again in the barbwire playpen,” where some dominatrix has him by the short and curlies and isn’t about to let him get up anytime soon. Despite a rainy, gloomy evening outside and an unusually sparse turnout – Murphy packed the place the last couple of times he played here – the man was his usual charismatic self and the band was clearly feeding off his energy.