Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

James McMurtry Rocks the Bell House

Saturday night at the Bell House, James McMurtry kept switching guitars and then retuning them. More often than not, he didn’t bother to hit his pedal to find the right pitch: he didn’t have to. Although he played a lot of songs on acoustic guitar, this was the rock set. It was just as much about the tunes as the endless torrents of lyrics chronicling the disenfranchised Americans hanging over the line between blue-collar poverty and complete destitution. Forget for a minute how vivid his narratives are, or how memorably he’s captured the silent majority’s endless struggle to claw their way out of the poverty trap: he’s also a mighty interesting guitarist. After several rapidfire verses of Choctaw Bingo, a characteristic, offhandedly savage chronicle of the Oklahoma crystal meth economy, McMurtry and his band left behind the bluesy, Come Together-ish shuffle and let the tune explode in a blast of raw guitar fury straight out of R.L. Burnside. Childish Things swung with a snarling, sour mash-fueled groove, part Stones, part Steve Earle. Too Long in the Wasteland took on a careening desperation. And his best-known song, We Can’t Make It Here, stomped with a hypnotic desert-rock vibe complete with a flange guitar solo before the last chorus. “We were gonna drop this from the set list, but it’s still relevant – which sucks for everybody but us,” McMurtry dryly told the crowd. He was being sarcastic of course: in better times a songwriter of his caliber could fill Madison Square Garden. He’s played the song a million times, yet he doesn’t seem to be sick of it, maybe because the most potent chronicle of the economic devastation left behind by the Bush regime resonates as powerfully today as did five years ago. McMurtry drew a line in the sand and dared any Bush-apologist CEO to cross it:

Some have maxed out all their credit cards
Some are working two jobs and living in cars
Minimum wage won’t pay for a roof
It won’t pay for a drink and you gotta have proof…
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can’t make it here anymore

The stories, obviously, are what the crowd came out for, and McMurtry gave them plenty. His characters will squeeze a discarded soft pack in the case that the person who tossed it away might not have noticed that there was still a smoke or two inside. They regret the choices they’ve made, the kids they shouldn’t have had, they drink too much and do too many drugs, they think about giving up completely but they never do. Ultimately, McMurtry and his endless parade of the debt-ridden and the angst-ridden are optimists, if only because the idea of doing anything other than carrying on is impossible to imagine. Surprisingly, one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the night was one of the most subtle, the disarmingly allusive Restless. Other songs went for the jugular: Levelland, with its cruel, almost caricaturish tableau of Midwestern anomie, satellite tv dishes and cover bands playing Smoke on the Water. Ruby and Carlos, done solo acoustic, kept the suspense going all the way through to the end, where the shellshocked veteran from the first gulf war lets the land line ring and misses the call from his long-lost, now-injured ex. And The Lights of Cheyenne glimmered distantly, capturing the casual, occasionally dramatic cruelty of life in small western highwayside towns, and the temptations to throw it all away in a futile shot at escape.

And it was good to kick off the night early with a show by another literate rocker whose narratives are just as vivid and intense. LJ Murphy’s songs chronicle the same parade of characters, albeit in a more urban milieu. At Banjo Jim’s, he and his band ran through a similarly bluesy set full of “cops on horseback, sleeping drunks and men who work three jobs” in a pre-condo era McCarren Park, pink-collar happy hour crowds too clueless to realize how exploited they are, CEOs getting a hard time from the dominatrixes they love so much, and imperfect strangers who never fail to drive away anyone who gets too close.

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June 20, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 11/23/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Tuesday’s album is #798:

James McMurtry Childish Things

A growling, cynically lyrical Americana rock songwriter in the twangy Steve Earle vein, James McMurtry plays midsize venues around the world to a cult audience who hang on every word. He’s never made a bad album. We picked this one, from 2005 because it’s got his signature song, We Can’t Make It Here, probably the most vivid depiction of the economic consequences of the Bush/Cheney reign of terror. McMurtry is a potent, vivid storyteller, and there are a handful of first-rate ones here: the ominous, murderous foreshadowing of Bad Enough; the swinging dysfunctional holiday-from-hell tale Memorial Day and the family road trip from/to hell, Holiday. The rumbling title track alludes to the hopelessness of depressed rural areas that McMurtry has chronicled so well throughout his career; the swaying, funky Restless looks at the hope or lack thereof for relationships there. There’s also the brooding European vignette Charlemagne’s Home Town, the sly Slew Foot – a duet with Joe Ely – and the poignant prisoner’s recollection Six Year Drought – is it told from the point of view of a POW? An ex-slave? A Holocaust survivor? If you want a torrent, here’s a random one – because we’re in a depression, and nobody knows that better than McMurtry, he’d understand if you downloaded it for nothing. Because he’s an independent artist and could use the support, there’s a link to his site in the title above.

November 23, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Hangdogs Reunion Show at Rodeo Bar, NYC 9/18/08

Shows like this can be extremely depressing; this benefit concert for Iowa flood relief was anything but (more on that later). The band actually looked better than ever. Maybe it was a good thing they broke up when they did, because the way they’d been drinking, they might not have lasted much longer anyway. For a substantial chunk of time in the late 90s and early zeros, there was no better New York band than the Hangdogs. Watching them evolve from overamped, politically incorrect honkytonkers to a magnificent, lyrically-charged Americana rock unit with a national following was one of the most satisfying things a concertgoer here could have witnessed – and countless did. But unable to tour constantly to support themselves, embittered by the corporatization of the music industry (and everything else) and the depletion of their mainly working-class audience, they packed it in in 2004, frontman Matthew “Banger” Grimm moving back to his native Iowa where he started an equally good, smart band, Matthew Grimm & the Red Smear. If memory serves right, this week’s two-night stand at their old haunt, the Rodeo (they play tonight as well) is the third time they’ve regrouped.

 

This time around, they didn’t have the full lineup – lead guitarist/keyboardist Kevin Karg AKA Texas Tex was AWOL. They did, however, have every bass player who’d ever been in the band, or so it seemed, a constant rotation taking turns depending on who knew what song. As usual, they saved most of the best stuff for their second set, toward the end of the night when everybody’d had more than a few. Standing in for Karg was Mick Hargreaves (formerly of Buddy Woodward’s Nitro Express), playing acoustic; southpaw guitarist Automatic Slim delivered his usual fast, crescendoing lead lines, and for once Grimm’s Telecaster wasn’t too low in the mix. The result was a fiery, ferocious blend of roar and twang. While a little loose from the booze and time spent away from the songs, they still played what has to be one of the best shows of the year so far.

 

Grimm marveled at how many sports bars have sprung up in the neighborhood since he left town. He was taken aback by a comment from somebody in the crowd: “I’m a pacifist. You have to hit me first.” As a writer, he’s as politically astute as Steve Earle or James McMurtry but a whole lot funnier, which is probably the secret to his success: instead of smacking you upside the head, he makes you laugh.  He and the band barreled through a mix of funny songs – the anti-consumerist Memo from the Corner Office, the New Nashville satire Drink Yourself to Death (which poses the question, why does country radio sound like Celine Dion?), Alcohol of Fame (sung by one of the bass players) and their signature song, Beware the Dog – along with more serious fare like The Little Man in the Boat, a darkly prophetic number about the destitution of the working class.

 

With a gleeful grin, Grimm got his amp howling with feedback before lauching into a blistering version of Flatlands, a savage chronicle of bad times on the great plains that’s been a crowd favorite for years. As usual, they threw some covers into the set: Cheri Knight’s pensive If Wishes Were Horses, a Johnny Horton cover and a Chuck Berry-ish number that a ton of bar bands do. As much as this could have been a cruelly tantalizing nostalgia trip for those who miss the days before 9/11, it wasn’t. The best song of the night was their last, a brand-new number possibly titled 1/20/09, delivered by just Grimm and the rhythm section. It’s a brutal yet ultimately optimistic 6/8 ballad, set indelibly in the here and now, looking forward to the day when 5.4 billion people on the planet will rejoice in George W. Bush’s departure from the office he stole in the coup d’etat in 2000. Like Grimm, many or maybe even most of us would rejoice if Cheney’s Toy got terminal cancer, and nobody’s looking forward to the messy task of cleaning up the debacle he leaves behind. It’s the kind of song you walk out of the bar singing to yourself, at least in the snippets you can remember. If Grimm can get it recorded in the next couple of months, we’ll have the anthem of the decade.

 

In case you missed this one, the Hangdogs are playing a second show, pretty much the same stuff, tonight (Friday, 9/19/08) at the Rodeo starting around 10ish.     

September 19, 2008 Posted by | concert, country music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment