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.

Advertisements

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

LJ Murphy and Curtis Eller: On the Same Stage At Last

The crowd at Banjo Jim’s Saturday night was stomping, clapping, making pigeon noises and singing “I’m gonna burn like a sweatshop fire” over and over again. In other words, pretty much what you would expect at a show featuring two of the world’s most charismatic rockers. LJ Murphy and Curtis Eller may not be household names, but each has a cult following that spans the globe, and legendary status as live performers. Murphy has been playing regularly here; Eller was up from his new home in North Carolina for a gig in Queens and then this one. It was sort of the underground lyrical rock equivalent of an Iggy Pop/James Brown doublebill, and it’s likely the two had never shared a stage before. They’re very similar: both draw deeply on the blues and write catchy, torrentially lyrical songs full of puns, double entendres and historical references. Murphy played with an acoustic trio featuring Tommy Hoscheid on second rhythm guitar and Patrick McClellan on piano; Eller’s show afterward was a solo performance on banjo. With his signature hundred-yard stare, Murphy and his band were tight beyond belief; Eller’s show afterward saw him going up on one foot, wielding his axe like a cross between Dontrelle Willis and Darryl Strawberry, wandering out into the crowd and engaging them in a series of animated singalongs.

Murphy opened with a tight, intense version of Geneva Conventional, a swaying minor-key blues about the consequences of selling out, McClellan’s rippling attack set against the lush backdrop of guitars. They steamrolled through the snide, angst-driven Imperfect Strangers, a twisted, Costelloish look at a failed hookup, then took the theme to its logical extreme with the resolute, morose oldschool soul ballad This Is Nothing Like Bliss. Long Way to Lose, Murphy’s most successful venture into vintage C&W, was especially amped, with the audience spontaneously getting involved. From there, Murphy careened through a scathing take of the cabaret-tinged blues Mad Within Reason (where “The music was sampled from Bach to James Brown/They saddled the mistress and lowered her down”), then a sun-speckled version of his biggest hit, the plaintive lost weekend scenario Saturday’s Down. Murphy took Barbwire Playpen, his sendup of Wall Street swindlers who spend more time in the dungeon than on the trading floor, down to just the vocals at its most vicious moments and closed with an unexpected choice, the quiet, Orwellian nightmarish Bovine Brothers. McClellan followed Murphy’s ominous revelation that “a sermon blares all night long from the roof of a radio car” with some spot-on gospel fills. And then it was over.

Intentionally or not, Eller continued the religious allusion with the surreal Nashville gothic Taking Up Serpents. Where Murphy’s everyman battles the system and encroaching fascism, Eller employs actual historical figures and events. The recently commemorated Triangle Shirtwaist Fire gets a sideways reference in Sweatshop Fire (that was the singalong), a grimly metaphorical evocation of all hell breaking loose. The brooding slow waltz Last Flight of the Pigeon Club offered a bleak outer-borough scenario: “If they find someplace better to die than New Jersey, I’ll probably go there myself,” the song’s eccentric hobbyist laments. An even more surreal, menacing minor-key blues number chronicled black crows circling the North Pole, satellites gone haywire and a storm outside unwilling to break (an ironic touch, with the torrential downpour outside the club). The most richly satisfying song of the night was Eller’s best one, the apocalyptic After the Soil Fails, creepy and terse with just the banjo and Eller’s chronicle of CIA-sponsored assassinations and third world misadventures. “The drinks are getting weaker with every round they serve: the way they keep us sober is getting on my nerves,” Eller snarled on the sarcastic Sugar in My Coffin; he closed the set with a hushed, chilling singalong of Save Me Joe Louis, based on what were supposedly the last words of the first man (who may well have been innocent) to be executed in the gas chamber. “Everybody is gonna have that moment when they step in front of a taxi, or fall down the stairs…or the gas chamber, and you’re gonna have your guy you call out for. And it’s gonna be a surprise for you…how many of you are going to be surprised to say, “Save me, Obama?” Eller asked the laughing crowd. “So when you’re singing, just think of your own Joe Louis – it could be Buster Keaton, Amelia Earhart, Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon…” From there, he let the audience whisper the chorus along with him. It’s hard to think of a more intense, memorable end to any doublebill in New York in recent memory.

April 18, 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

Concert Review: LJ Murphy at Banjo Jim’s, NYC 4/24/10

LJ Murphy’s set last night started out incisive and sometimes menacing, picked up the pace and ended on a defiantly ecstatic note, the crowd afterward murmuring bits and pieces of whatever song lingered most resonantly to them. Murphy’s signature style is a noir, literate blend of oldschool blues and soul with a punk rock edge, sometimes venturing into other shades of Americana as with the gorgeously sad, swaying country song Long Way to Lose. Audiences frequently mistake that one for a classic by Hank Williams or someone similar – this crowd didn’t because it was obviously all fans.

Like the old blues and jazz guys Murphy admires, he’s been playing with a rotating cast of musicians lately. This time out featured first-rate New Orleans pianist Willie Davis and a drummer supplying a mostly minimalist beat on kick drum and cymbal. They set the tone with the ominous Weimar march of Mad Within Reason, the surreal, apocalyptic title track to his classic 2005 cd, kept the cynical double entendres going with the fast soul shuffle of Imperfect Strangers and then went deep into vintage blues with a more recent one, Nothing Like Bliss, a bitter chronicle of seduction gone hopelessly wrong: “Now that your train’s left the station, you might as well go home,” he reflected. The high point of the evening, at least the early part was Fearful Town, a minor key East Village nightmare of tourists and trendoids displacing all the familiar haunts, Davis throwing off a casual trail of sparks with his solo as he’d do all night.

Happy Hour, a savage afterwork Wall Street chronicle of young Republicans getting their freak on, took the intensity up, then Murphy brought it down with a cover of Doc Pomus’ Lonely Avenue (he’d learned it from Ray Charles and Van Morrison, he said), then his biggest hit, the gorgeously brooding Saturday’s Down and then brought the volume up again with the ferocious bluespunk of Nowhere Now. He closed with a couple other equally ferocious blues numbers and encored with a singalong of Barbed Wire Playpen, yet another swipe at Wall Street, in this case a hedge fund type who visits his favorite dungeon one time too many. Murphy dedicated that one to Goldman Sachs. The worse the depression gets, the more relevant Murphy becomes – it’s hard to imagine a more catchy chronicler of life among those of us whose Christmas bonus is simply having any job at all.

April 25, 2010 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment