James McMurtry – Live @ The Five Spot

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Last I saw James McMurtry, I really wasn’t familiar with his songs, but nevertheless I really enjoyed his show.  Great lyrics and great guitar will do that. It wasn’t too hard to persuade some friends (and their spouses) to see him in Atlanta.

This show would be McMurtry’s second night at The Five Spot, a small bar in Atlanta’s Little Five Points, just a couple buildings away from Variety Playhouse, my favorite concert venue.  It is said that McMurtry prefers playing in small bars, which I hope is the case because he’s deserving of a much larger crowd – such as Variety Playhouse would accommodate.

Still, it was in Little Five Points, Atlanta’s most famous intersection for alt-everything.  And, it included an opportunity to return to The Vortex, which with or without the influence of Magic Hat #9 or Laughing Skull beers, makes a very fine hamburger.  Pictured is their Tazmanian Devil, which is a 1/2 pound burger coated with a pepperberry rub and topped with pepperjack cheese and pineapple salsa. 

The Vortex - Tazmanian Devil

The Vortex is a simply a great pre-concert venue.  Their walls are decorated with ample conversation starters.  Or, finishers… it depends upon who you’re with.

We arrived at the Five Spot about a half hour before show time.  It’s rather inconspicuous, with a side entrance.

As it turns out, we could have eaten there, as tables are provided within the venue along the outer walls.  That said, I don’t think anyone had any regrets about The Vortex.  It has a full bar, a raised stage, and paintings that reflect the local constituency for sale on the walls

The tables were about full by the time we got there, and the handful of people who were left standing stayed at the bar during the opening set from Jonny Burke.  He’s apparently touring with McMurtry, and… he’s just okay.  He played some different songs since I saw him in September, but his enthusiasm doesn’t cover up for his repetition of chords and average voice. I had hoped that he would have expanded his range, but that was not to be.  I mean, he’s touring with James McMurtry.  Isn’t he learning something?

Jonny Burke

And it’s not like he was needed.   As soon as Burke left the stage, the crowd moved forward.  Even before McMurtry’s set began, it was apparent that the one or two ceiling fans were not going to come anywhere close to cooling the space.  I don’t think anyone left having positive thoughts about the venue.  Aside from the lack of A/C, there is very little frontage space across the stage, which leaves the majority trying to look over others’ heads. There’s better venues, even small ones, around town.

That said, McMurtry showed no indication through the evening of being bothered by the heat.  Even though he has several songs that are worthy of airplay, it’s unlikely to ever hear them on stations who limit themselves to classic rock or American Idol lip-synchers.  So while McMurtry didn’t launch into his “hits,” he included basically all of his more popular songs, including “Red Dress,” “Just Us Kids,” “For All I Know,” “No More Buffalo,” “Out Here in the Middle,” “Levelland” and others.  The highlight for me was “Choctaw Bingo” which combines a narrative full of attitude with cutting guitar work.  He closed with “Too Long in the Wasteland,” which, while good, has sounded better on his live recordings.  McMurtry returned for the encore on solo acoustic, playing “Lights of Cheyenne.”

Many obviously came because they enjoy McMurtry’s songs, but ultimately very few were able to see the nimble finger work that he displays on every song.    Watching him play makes it seem like everyone should be able to play guitar, and do it well.  When Madison Avenue tries to sell “new and improved,” a good rule of thumb is that a new guitar means nothing, but a well worn guitar has proven its worth… in the right hands.

Another observation is that many musicians tend to sing above the crowd.  They close their eyes or stare just above the crowd, focused on doing their thing.  Seeing McMurtry up close is somewhat unsettling, as his eyes workIMG_2055 across the audience, person by person, his eyes lingering on each fan.  And, based on his idle chat between songs, it’s obvious he’s paying attention.

After the concert was over, my thoughts turned again to how unfortunate it was that such a great artist played before a crowd of 150 or less, even as appreciative as they were.   He’s deserving of much more, but like so many artists, his fan base is spread largely by word of mouth.  One of my friends was thinking similarly, when he said, “I don’t know that you could ever see as talented artist for 20 bucks.”  Indeed.

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