Cult artist and noir songwriter LJ Murphy’s return to the New York stage after a few months’ absence was a triumph, in fact extraordinary. Even with the depression and all the horrible things the Bloomberg administration has brought to the city, it’s hard to remember such a happy time here and the musicians playing right now are feeding off that feeling, bigtime. Saturday night at Banjo Jim’s, Murphy delivered an especially intense show backed only by Amsterdam-based pianist Robert Bosscher, who proved to be the best musician Murphy’s ever played with, hands-down (and Murphy’s always been a magnet for first-rate players). Murphy’s songs are rich with bluesy melody, and Bosscher – a jazz guy playing rock and blues, and loving it – seized every opportunity. The two opened auspiciously with the stark, minor-key Geneva Conventional, a terse, knowing number about selling out, Bosscher evoking Donald Fagen at his most purist. Bosscher’s fluency with a multitude of styles immediately became apparent on the tongue-in-cheek Damaged Goods as he colored it with Floyd Cramer-style slip-key work. And then when they came to the solo in the haunting country song Long Way to Lose, rather than reverting to honkytonk, Bosscher went into high-Romantic, Roy Bittan ballad mode. There were also echoes of mid-period Joe Jackson in some of his playing.
“I wrote this during a different administration,” Murphy triumphantly announced as the two launched into a fiery version of the minor-key Weimar blues that serves as title track to his latest cd Mad Within Reason. Beyond the charisma, the scathingly smart lyrics and the tunes, another reason Murphy’s always worth seeing is that he’s constantly rewriting. Just when you think you know one of his songs, he’s completely revamped it and usually it’s even better than before. This time around, the duo reinvented the formerly Chuck Berry-ish Nowhere Now as a bouncy post-Ray Charles hit, recast the savage afterwork saga Happy Hour (“About young Republicans getting their freak on,” Murphy snarled) as neo-Velvets done like Tom Waits might, and turned the previously neo-Velvets rocker Another Lesson I Never Learned into a creepy Steve Wynn-esque blues.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there was as much talent in the audience as there was onstage, many of New York’s best rock songwriters (Murphy is highly esteemed by his peers) screaming for an encore. They got one with the soulful cautionary tale Sleeping Mind. This being Banjo Jim’s, the sound was characteristically excellent. This had to be the musical high point – so far – of what’s been a truly historic week.
Counting down the top 666 songs of alltime one day at a time all the way to #1. Here’s a celebratory one to fit the mood the whole world’s seemed to be in since the election:
624. Fordfalconblue – Eldorado Road
Exhilarating, vividly imagistic good-to-be-alive anthem from these underrated late 90s/early zeros NYC Americana rockers, lead player Eric Alter (who would go on to acclaim in the Sloe Guns) mixing it up nicely as frontman Richard Wallace’s 12-string clangs magnificently in the background. Never officially released by the band, although there are bootlegs kicking around; Wallace has a solo version on his site.