Wednesday, December 1, 2010

James McMurtry w/ Ray Mason @ The Iron Horse, December 1st, 2010

On a whim, I snapped up a ticket for the James McMurtry show at the Iron Horse this evening. I've been hearing good things about him for years, and "We Can't Make It Here" was not only chosen by Christgau as one of the best songs of 2005, but Bernie Sanders picked it up for his campaign theme. Not bad. Plus, I now see from my archives that I did indeed see him perform once before, back in the summer of 1993, the first time I ever went to the Newport Folk Festival. I'd be lying if I said I remember anything about that performance.

Anyhow, I went into the Iron Horse curious, and I walked out converted. James McMurtry is a meticulous songwriter, packing more details into his songs than almost anyone I can think of, and he picks and strums with amazing precision. He began with a song I later learned is called "Down Across the Delaware," and I was hooked after the first verse, involving "the gods that seem to rule our home," which is a reference to landlords, seemingly in New Jersey, or at least that's what I guess from the line about "the Garden State giving way to the real world." Class and poverty and capitalism are this guy's great themes and, with a few touches of surrealism and a few dashes of local color, they lock in and hold on every single song. Not one thing he played this evening, not one, just lay in the air. Each one felt like either an attack or a defense or a little of both. The second song was one of the two that I recognized upon hearing, "Red Dress." I'll quote the same verse from this song that Matt quoted in an earlier review because it's just too damn good: "Yes I'm drunk but damn you're ugly / Tell you one thing, yes I will / Tomorrow morning I'll be sober / You'll be just as ugly still." Ouch! Later on came "Choctaw Bingo," which I think I first heard on WFUV in New York.

The performance was dominated by the music. The man radiated confidence and authority and, with a few exceptions, he neither spoke or smiled between songs. Instead, he played and played and played; a 12-string guitar for the first half dozen songs, over to a 6-string for a few, and then back to the 12-string for the final half dozen. He introduced "Choctaw Bingo" with the line, "I'd like to play a medley of my hit," which he stole from Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him follow that line by telling us that he hoped that he didn't scare away anyone who knew where he'd stolen the line from. Well played, I thought. Beyond that, there was hardly any banter from the stage, and I was glad.

As I said, not a single song lacked at least one amazing line, a turn of phrase, a snappy aphorism that sunk its teeth into my brain. There was the blood pressure pill washed down with a Red Bull, the one about Carlos and Ruby, the one with "mama used to roll her hair / back before the central air," and the one that began "she gets a little restless in the spring." I will seek this man out in the future.

The Iron Horse was sold out, or close to it. Plenty of people standing at the bar. There was even someone standing in front of me who, as soon as I realized he was planning on staying there, I had to ask to move. Twice, in fact. The crowd was mostly middle-aged, although I met a Mount Holyoke student (and Valley Advocate writer) there, who was sitting behind me. It was full even for the opening act, Ray Mason, whose most notable attribute was his guitar, a beautiful, beat-up 1965 Sears Silvertone. He introduced it at the same time as he introduced the one cover he performed, a Barbara Mason hit from the same year, "Yes I'm Ready," which I actually recognized. His self-written material was ok, his banter in between songs less so. The peak, however, came at the end, when he played a song from the first of his dozen CDs, "When I Meet You on the Moon," in which he showed off his guitar chops a bit, throwing in licks from "Day Tripper" and at least one other recognizable tune, though I forget which.

I head to the big city on Friday for the first of Hot Tuna's two nights at the Beacon, to celebrate Jorma's 70th birthday. Then, on Saturday, back to the Iron Horse for some Crooked Still. I'll be sure to report on them both....


Mark said...

Great review. I thoroughly enjoyed the show. I have seen him several times at the Horse. You should check out Jesse Malin coming soon to the Iron Horse. Mark

Matt Winters said...

Dead on, brother! Glad you caught him.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure he stole that from CSN? A quick Google seems to suggest it was Thin Lizzy, but CSN never actually had a number one hit... and it does sound like something Stephen Stills would say. Thoughts?

Nick Toloudis said...

Can't remember which of the CSN boys said it, but it's a line from their performance at Woodstock. It's how they intro'd their song "Marrakesh Express," and you can hear it on the Woodstock 2 album.
I'd be surprised to learn that James McMurtry wasn't thinking of CSN when he made that comment.

Anonymous said...

I saw his show the other night, and he used the same line, but he said "And if you know the dead guy I stole that from... then you're too old."

And since all of CSNY is still alive and well, I was sort of thrown for a loop. Googled it up, and ended up here, but I'm with you on this one. If someone else said it, I think they were probably copying CSN, too.

On a more relevant note, I highly recommend his shows too. Some of his stuff sounds a lot better in a stripped down acoustic version than it does with production. And when there is banter, you get a good idea of his great dry and sarcastic since of humor, which just makes the songs more enjoyable.