James McMurtry. Bluebird Theater. 06.24.16
Before moving to Colorado I didn’t have any friends who were into jam bands. I also didn’t have any friends who were into EDM. Sure, most of us had hung out in the parking lot at a Dead show, seen Phish once or twice, and attended our fair share of warehouse and desert raves, but nothing to the extent of spending a long weekend with Widespread Panic or rubbing powered drugs on our gums while waiting for the unavoidable ‘drop’. Since moving to Colorado, friends have questioned my reluctance to explore those particular facets of music, especially considering my love for everything from country to punk, metal to hip hop, and most things between. My usual response has to do with lyrics. There are exceptions to the rule, but I’ve found that I’m partial to songs with an underlining story, even if the story is buried under slabs of sound. I usually gravitate toward real country, folk, and Americana artists; the poets and storytellers who put the same (and sometimes greater) value on words as they do on melody and chord progression. James McMurtry is one of those artists. In fact, when it comes to contemporary storytellers, it would be a challenge to find a stronger voice.
“And I woke up last night
In the grip of a fright
Scared to breathe for I might make a noise
Of this life that we crave
So little we save
Between the grandparents’ graves
And the grandchildren’s toys
And we grew up hard
And our children don’t know what that means
We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens
Through a series of Chevy’s and Fords
The occasional spin round the floor
At The Copper Canteen”
Looking around at the people packed into the Bluebird Theater on Friday night, I realized my wife and I fell somewhere between the generation McMurtry was singing about and the children who ‘don’t know what that means’. Relative youth to those surrounding us didn’t lessen the sting of those words though. Growing up easier than our parents doesn’t guarantee a good night’s sleep, especially in the world we are living in today, so the occasional thrill of catching a good whiskey buzz while singing and dancing along to poetry about the human condition isn’t an age specific activity.
McMurtry doesn’t shy away from politics when addressing the woes of the average working American (the police officer posted in front of the venue the entire night was just another reminder of the current dangers we face as a society), but he doesn’t let the message stifle the high spirits of his audience. Backed by a rowdy, but extraordinary bar band consisting of guitarist/accordion player Tim Holt, drummer Daren Hess, and bassist Cornbread, McMurtry led the Denver faithful through a two-hour, career-spanning set of stories that gave tribute to the world outside, while simultaneously making us forget about it.
McMurtry and his band took the stage around 10:00pm, after an engaging, sometimes humorous, acoustic set by Max Gomez. A few kinks in the sound and some microphone issues were worked out by the time “Red Dress” came to a close — giving way to a fine performance of “Just Us Kids”. Sporting a fresh haircut (gone were his signature curls), groomed goatee, and his usual panama hat, the man of the hour introduced “How’m I Gonna Find You Now” as “the one that was supposed to be my first big radio hit”, before admitting he’d had “a bunch of those ‘supposed to be’ hits” along the way.
An extended run of new material followed, proving the man is still at the top of his game (and maybe better than ever) after close to thirty years on the road. The wry smile he wore on his face revealed his sarcasm to be secondary to his love of being on the stage. “I wrote this one in the R Bar in New Orleans, where I was just the perfect amount of drunk and pissed off that I could write a song…’course I had to it write fast.” “I Ain’t Got No Place” was the song he was referring to.
“Y’all know what you want to hear, now you know what you’re gonna hear.” After quite a few new tracks, and to the crowd’s delight, the band took us across the country for a little “Choctaw Bingo”; a song dedicated to the “United Crystal Methodist Church of Oklahoma”. Then they took a break while McMurtry delivered a solo version of “These Things I’ve Come to Know”. That song would complete the Complicated Game cycle, so the rest of the night became an exploration of the past.
“A whole generation has been born and grown into adults since I wrote this song, it was supposed to be my first radio hit in 1989.” The sardonic grin grew into an appreciative smile as voices barely old enough to drink joined his own to sing along with “Painting by Numbers”.
Tim Holt took his accordion skills to the next level for “Every Little Bit Counts” before I lost track of how many guitars had cycled through McMurtry’s hands by the time he reached for another one during “Levelland”. Then the set ended with the blues-soaked brawler, “Too Long in the Wasteland”.
“Tip your bartender right, start at 20% and go up from there, drive safe…and if you don’t, be nice to the night officer.”
Those words were a sobering reminder that the world in the songs actually existed beyond the green exit signs, but then an encore, consisting of a solo, acoustic rendition of “Lights of Cheyenne”, delayed the inevitable a few more minutes. McMurtry stepped forward from the mic to let his true voice flow over the crowd with those final verses. And then, with a tip of his hat, he walked off the stage and to his van parked on Colfax; the van that would take him to the next town and the next show, but even more importantly, to the next story and the next song.
What’s the Matter Now?
Just Us Kids
How’m I Gonna Find You Now
You Got to Me
Ain’t Got a Place
These Things I’ve Come to Know
Painting by Numbers
Every Little Bit Counts
For All I Know
Too Long in the Wasteland
Lights of Cheyenne