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

LJ Murphy and Willie Davis Tear Up Banjo Jim’s

Last night was New Orleans pianist Willie Davis’ last gig with LJ Murphy for a while – at least til Murphy gets down to Louisiana for some shows there. It figures – the buzz in the audience afterward was that in the year-and-a-half or so they’ve played together, this was their best show. Murphy kicked it off with his usual thousand-yard stare, shuffling Chuck Berry style out into the audience. He didn’t do the splits, but maybe that’s the next step. The New York noir rocker was in rare form, even for someone whose stage presence is notoriously intense. It brought to mind the famous incident where Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Rex Barney, who’d just walked a bunch of guys, received a visit on the mound from Burt Shotton. When Barney didn’t even acknowledge his manager’s presence, Shotton was angry at first, but then realized that Barney was so intently focused on the game that he was essentially in a trance. So when the crowd clapped along with the stately Weimar pulse of Mad Within Reason – which Davis had kicked off with a neatly ominous, rubato blues piano intro – Murphy didn’t seem to notice.

Like the oldschool jazz and blues players Murphy so obviously admires, there’s no telling what his songs are going to sound like from one show to another. The defiant Another Lesson I Never Learned used to be a hypnotic Velvet Underground style rock song; this time out, he’d reinvented it as a snaky, slashing minor-key blues. On Skeleton Key, the surprisingly sympathetic account of a stalker who doesn’t seem to know he is one, Murphy took it down very quietly at the end where the poor guy “received a letter from the courthouse yesterday: if I even try to talk to you, they’re gonna put me straight away.” Davis’ richly wistful chords gave the bitter lost-weekend chronicle Saturday’s Down a stunningly sad soulfulness; Murphy wound up a swinging boogie version of the surreal, menacing Nowhere Now with a furious whirl of guitar chord-chopping. But the best numbers were the newest: the vividly evocative Edward Hopperesque overnight scenes of the bluesy countrypolitan ballad Waiting by the Lamppost for You (originally written for Cal Folger Day), and a fiery, indomitable version of the anti-gentrifier broadside Fearful Town, its perplexed narrator “sitting on a bonfire in a night that never ends,” where “grandmothers go dancing in high heels and castanets.” For anyone who misses the old, more dangerous and vastly more entertaining New York as much as Murphy does, it struck a nerve. The duo closed with a brisky bouncing version of Barbwire Playpen, a characteristically savage chronicle of a hedge fund type who can’t resist the allure of the dungeoness: it could have been written for Eliot Spitzer.

After a long pause, an excellent accordion/clarinet/cello trio played klezmer, Balkan and Middle Eastern-flavored material: it would have been nice to have been able to stick around for their whole set (and it would have been nice if Banjo Jims’ calendar listing for the show hadn’t disappeared so we could find out who they were). Up the block and around the corner, Spanking Charlene were kicking off frontwoman Charlene McPherson’s annual birthday show at Lakeside: the place was packed, and the band was smoking or so it seemed. All the gentrifiers haven’t driven good music of the East Village, at least not yet.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment