Saturday, April 18, 2015

James McMurtry at the Bowery Ballroom

Alt-country singer-songwriter James McMurtry was born in Fort Worth, Texas, and lived in Houston until at age seven he moved with his family to a farm in Waterford, Virginia. His father, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, gave him a guitar, and the boy's mother, a university English professor, taught him to play it. The young McMurtry started writing songs and later began playing live during his college years in Tucson, Arizona. He made his way to San Antonio, Texas, and one of his demo tapes made it to John Mellencamp, who produced McMurtry's debut album in 1989. McMurtry now lives in Austin, Texas, and released his 10th studio album (and his first studio album in seven years), Complicated Game, on February 24, 2015.

At the Bowery Ballroom tonight, James McMurtry's panoramic view of America was overshadowed by his country-rocking rhythms and sometimes muffled vocals. Normally, a listen to McMurtry's lyrics of small town life and common human struggles is an immersion into the craft of poetic songwriting. Tonight, however, if a listener was not familiar with McMurtry's lyrics, the rocking music on most of the songs likely prevented the listener from following the many curves in his cleverly-composed short-story songs. This turned out to be forgivable, as the music was solidly rooted in waves of engaging American sounds. The eloquent lyrics were more decipherable when the accompaniment was stripped down later in the two-hour set, as on the quieter "Long Island Sound" and on solo acoustic songs like "Lights of Cheyenne." McMurtry played the bulk of the instrumental leads and proved to be a talented guitarist. "No More Buffalo", "Too Long in the Wasteland" and "Choctaw Bingo" were opportunities for McMurtry to stretch both his guitar playing and his lyrics into six to 12-minute jams. To understand many of McMurtry's lyrics, however, one had to read the lips of the fans singing along near the edge of the stage.

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