Wow, Rocks Off is a huge fan of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, but Saturday night this hard-charging band from Muscle Shoals, Alabama got a lesson in Texas big beat. Isbell himself was sitting in the backstage area while James McMurtry was laying down the law according to Texas, and Isbell looked like someone who was appreciating, who was going to school.
McMurtry, known to be aloof, misanthropic and political, had the fire in his eyes from the first blistering note of "Turtle Bayou Turnaround." We hadn't seen McMurtry in a while, and while he's always been top shelf, he seems to have elevated his game to the highest levels in the past year. It doesn't hurt that he's had the same rhythm section -- bassist Ronnie Johnson and drummer Darren Hess -- for almost two decades. They had it locked in so tight all McMurtry had to worry about was tearing up his Paul Reed Smith six-string. And McMurtry put on a guitar player clinic a la David Grissom.
We've seen McMurtry gigs before that were underwhelming because of poor sound, and the Firehouse sound man gets major kudos for dialing it in perfectly Saturday night as McMurtry roared through "Childish Things," "Just Us Kids," "Levelland," and the nastiest version of his epic "Choctaw Bingo" that we've ever heard him do.
It was a true pleasure to see McMurtry actually seem to be enjoying himself, rolling his eyes at certain pointed lyrics, engaging the crowd with more eye contact than we've ever seen him do. We see a lot of shows and we're going to say right here, right now, that McMurtry has one of the hottest shows going, and not just in Americana. This band doesn't take a back seat to anyone.
And while McMurtry was certainly the more impressive of the two bands, this is not to say that Isbell didn't deliver a stellar set with some wonderful surprises like the Meters' classic "Hey Pocky Away" mixed in with approximately half of his current release Here We Rest and two crowd-pleasers from his Drive-By Truckers days, "Decoration Day" and "Outfit."
But after flying to New York City for a David Letterman taping on Thursday, then racing back to Austin for a show on Friday, Isbell clearly looked a bit worse for wear and lack of sleep. A true professional in every sense, though, he powered through the evening in spite of Alabama's overtime loss to LSU being announced halfway through his set. His set-ending rendition of "Codeine," which aired on the Letterman program Friday night, was absolutely magical. Isbell is one of those artists who is more than act. When he sings songs like "Tour of Duty" or "Alabama Pines," he means it.
Given its usual pattern of booking mainly so-called Texas music acts, Firehouse Saloon seemed an unlikely venue for James McMurtry and Isbell, two of the most literate voices in American music, to be sharing a stage. And while there were maybe 200 people in attendance Saturday night, promoters could not have been happy about the turnout, given that Hayes Carll recently drew around 600 to the venue at 59 and Chimney Rock.
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In all likelihood the promoters took a serious financial bath on this one, and that's a shame because the Firehouse is an excellent venue. It will be interesting to see whether they are making some kind of transition to a higher echelon of touring acts outside their regular rotation that hasn't changed much in years. With a capacity approximately twice that of the Continental Club, the Firehouse certainly has the physical facility to be a real player in the national touring market here. This bears watching. And supporting.
Overheard in the crowd: "I like James here more than at the Continental. It's easier to get a drink."
Random Notebook Dump: This was like going to a poetry class and actually liking the poems.
The Crowd: An odd mix of Ball Cap Nation Texas music types (who knew most of McMurtry's lyrics) and people who would normally have been at Continental, Mucky Duck, etc. (who also knew McMurtry's lyrics). A good mix of people who came for Isbell. We don't know how many people came to see Isbell and how many came for McMurtry, but Isbell definitely was appreciated by all.