Friday, July 9, 2010

James McMurtry at The Highdive in Champaign

Having driven past Champaign's Highdive before, I thought that I would be walking into a divey bar with a corner stage. Instead I walked into a big, beautiful and hoppin' space with a high tin ceiling, artistic red lighting, a raised stage and a serious sound system. I was there to see James McMurtry for the first time.

The opening act was Jonny Burke, a songwriter and guitarist from Austin. His website features a pull quote asking if "Keith Richards [has] become revitalized with one of his notorious blood transfusions," and the way that Burke came out ready to rock makes it a fair comparison. He received serious support from Corey Cooke on drums and a bassist. The threesome worked well: Burke laying down heavy blues lines on the guitar, bouncing off the bass lines and being pushed along by some really high-quality drumming.

They started off with two rockers, switched to two acoustic numbers and then played "The Long Haul" and "El Paso" from his debut EP. Those two songs were both quite catchy -- a bit formulaic perhaps, but it was a formula that was working. After another acoustic number, the band wrapped up the set with a raw and rumbling blues medley.

James McMurtry appeared on stage with a similar line-up: his lead guitar (alternating electric and acoustic) plus bass and drums. And again it worked pretty damn well. His set was a mix of material from over the years. There wasn't much banter, but he wasn't unfriendly or distant either -- he was in his zone, and the crowd seemed to be loving it.

The set opened -- like his recent Live in Europe CD and the studio Just Us Kids from 2008 with "Bayou Tortous." After a solo acoustic version of "Ruby and Carlos" a little ways into the set, the band returned with a second guitarist to up the ante a little bit. They immediately rocked out on "Childish Things." He concluded the set with the classic "Too Long in the Wasteland," and then made us work for a while before coming out to encore with a solo version of "Lights of Cheyenne."

There are many amazing lyrics that I could quote from over the course of the night. The way that McMurtry conveys desolation and small town decay in "Hurricane Party" with the repeated line 'But now there's no one to talk to when the lines go down' is terrific songcraft. Or the nastiness of love gone wrong from a single verse of "Red Dress":
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.
McMurtry is a great lyricist without a doubt, and now I can also attest to the fact that he puts on a great live show, too.

The full set list:

  • "Bayou Tortous"

  • "Red Dress"

  • "Just Us Kids" - not as much applause as I might have expected for its opening line ('I've had enough of this small town bullshit')

  • "Hurricane Party"

  • "You'd a' Thought (Leonard Cohen Must Die)"

  • "Choctaw Bingo" - applause for Illinois mention

  • "Ruby and Carlos" - solo acoustic

  • "Childish Things"

  • "Fraulein O"

  • "Restless"

  • "Lobo Town" - described as country music for KISS fans

  • "Fireline Road"

  • "No More Buffalo"

  • "Too Long in the Wasteland"

  • ENCORE: "Lights of Cheyenne"


the sandwich life said...

it WAS a great show, huh?

Matt Winters said...

Ah, I see that you have "Peter Pan" up on The Sandwich Life in anticipation of the show. That definitely fell into the category of "songs that I left singing even though they had not been played during the show" last night!