James McMurtry McGonigel's Mucky Duck August 20, 2011
If the decline of the American empire has a soundtrack, it's the music of James McMurtry.
Gifted (or saddled) with a somewhat monotone singing voice and sporting a sardonic expression that was likely formed in the womb, McMurtry, 49, will probably never see mainstream popularity. Unlike similar chroniclers of domestic malaise like Bruce Springsteen and Drive-By Truckers, McMurtry's songs are largely free of bombast and happy endings (and he doesn't have the Boss' biceps). Instead, we're left with "gang graffiti on a boxcar door" or the itinerant protagonist shrugging that a six-year drought "won't hurt me none."
Aftermath was there for McMurtry's abbreviated solo set at the Mucky Duck on Saturday night. He came out in his now-trademark fedora, alternated between 12 and 6-string guitars and told a 13-song tale of disenchantment and misanthropy that reminded us of what we love about McMurtry - and a couple things we could do without - in the first place.
(And apologies for the shitty photos. It's... really dark in there.)
McMurtry took the stage promptly for his 9:30 p.m. set, opening with "Down Across the Delaware," his paean to love turned to apathy from 1995's Where'd You Hide the Body?. The theme continued with "Red Dress," another live mainstay that's done little to diminish talk of McMurtry's lack of esteem for the opposite sex.
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"Rachel's Song" was next, and the crowd - while appreciative - seemed to be getting a little restless. McMurtry isn't particularly reknowned for his stage banter, but he did take some time to point out the "four square feet of free space" in by the front door where folks of the "Methodist persuasion" could dance. Nobody took him up on the offer for "Hurricane Party" or "You'd a' Thought (Leonard Cohen Must Die)," a song occasionally misinterpreted as an attack on the revered songwriter.
Misinterpretation has dogged McMurtry in recent years. Songs like "We Can't Make it Here" and "Cheney's Toy" have pegged him in some circles as a political artist, which is inaccurate, unless singing about the sorry state of the working poor and disenfranchised qualifies. For what it's worth, he blamed both Reagan and Clinton for "giving the country to the banks."
The night's first real barnburner was "Choctaw Bingo," the popularity of which Aftermath has never understood. To us, it drones on for about two verses too long, but we were clearly in the minority Saturday night.
And we always forget what a good guitar player McMurtry is until we see him on his own. Apparently so did a lot of people.
He switched to the 6-string for a three-song run of "No More Buffalo," "Ruby and Carlos" and one of our favorites, "Out Here in the Middle," a (mostly) cyncism-free song about the heartland.
The 12-string came back for the home stretch: a new song called (we think) "Times Is Hard" and three cuts in a row from Childish Things: "We Can't Make It Here," "Charlemagne's Home Town," and "Restless." Not many artists can silence H-Town's notoriously shitty crowds, even at the Duck, but even the dumbass drunks coming in from the back deck shut up during "We Can't Make It Here."
McMurtry's songs invoke imagery of changing landscapes, open skies growing threatening, and change that is usually not for the better. They're about the sunset of American exceptionalism, and the impotent anger we feel towards those who got us there. It was difficult, at the end of the set (13 songs, including the encore "Peter Pan") not to come away feeling a little hollow.
And maybe McMurtry feels the same way. Frankly, 13 songs without "Too Long in the Wasteland" or "Childish Things" (or, hell, even "Levelland") is pretty disappointing. Come on, James...watch some Two and a Half Men like the rest of us and lighten up.
On second thought, don't do that.
Personal Bias: Aftermath has been known to listen to "Six Year Drought" ten or more times in a row.
The Crowd: Older and Caucasian, with a smattering of rather out-of-place bros thrown in, plus at least half a dozen old guys with extremely attractive, and bored looking, younger women. Take 'em to Cabo next time, dudes.
Overheard In the Crowd: "He's like Dylan, but from Texas."
Random Notebook Dump: "Songs about — buffalo: 2; combines: 2, cigarettes: 3."
Down Across the Delaware Red Dress Rachel's Song Hurricane Party Choctaw Bingo No More Buffalo Ruby and Carlos Out Here in the Middle "Times Is Hard" We Can't Make It Here Charlemagne's Home Town Restless
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