James McMurtry – Live at Eddie’s Attic

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I’ve seen James McMurtry twice, last at The Five Spot, which I’ll remember as my least favorite concert spot due to a lack of air-conditioning, not that the band complained or gave a lesser effort.  McMurtry seems to be one of the hardest working musicians around, touring constantly and booking small bars that may hold up to 200 people. 

This time around, he was performing at Eddie’s Attic, a venue that is a fixture in the Atlanta music scene and one that I had yet to visit.  Notably, this was a solo acoustic tour, leaving his bassist and drummer in Texas.

As is usual for my concert outings, the evening began with a pre-show beverage, this time at a nearby bar, the Brick Store Pub, which features a variety of Belgian beers on draught, among others.  The pub is located in an old brick walled historic building among others similarly converted to restaurants, boutiques, and retailers, nicely sectioned off from street traffic.

The downstairs of the Pub features a large semicircular bar with tables around it, open to a two-story ceiling. Upstairs, there are more tables and a smaller bar with the Belgian draughts.  The low ceiling, woodwork, and display of odd beers and glasses provide an inviting ambience. My friend had one of the Belgians, and I opted for a Lost AbbeyLost and Found.”  Lost Abbey is highly regarded brewery from California but new to the Atlanta market.  My last search for any of their beers demanded too princely a sum.  This beer was 1) cheaper and 2) excellent, with a very complex flavor that evolved during tasting, endingIMG_4277 with a flavor of caramel and roasted malt.  Unfortunately, the beer demanded more attention than I had time to give, because…

… I came for a concert, after all.  Meeting the rest of our group, we then proceeded to Eddie’s Attic.  Although we had reserved a table, our reservation indicated that this did not reserve any particular table.  First come, first served.  We arrived about 45 minutes prior to the 10:00 show (McMurtry’s second for the night), and we found the bar all but fully occupied.  Oh well.

But sometimes, all is not as it seems.  When the show was first announced, our plans were made quickly and someone, Mr. Piper, stepped up to make the reservation right away.  I’d guess we were the first to do so, because, surprisingly, two tables at the front of the stage had reservation cards with his name on them.  There didn’t appear to be a bad seat in the house, but… these were definitely better.Eddie banner

Kudo’s to Eddie’s Attic.  The sightlines are good, the sound system was clear, the servers are efficient throughout the show, and the audience is asked not to talk during the performance so that those who came to listen to the artist could do so without murmurs (or drunken requests for “Freebird!”)

McMurtry played for about an hour and a half, including songs that he seems to sing every night – “Red Dress,” “Choctaw Bingo,” “Levelland,” “Too Long in the Wasteland,” “We Can’t Make it Here,” etc.  Although there were a couple of songs with which I wasn’t familiar, I was hoping for new material as it’s been three years since his last CD.  That’s not to say I was disappointed.

I’m a fan of electric guitars, but acoustic presentations leave more sonic space for other sounds.  On solo acoustic, McMurtry seems to be at his best.  The absence of other instruments leaves more sonic space for his vocals, and though his musicianship is superb, his lyrics are the draw. 

McMurtry doesn’t have the widest vocal range, but he doesn’t need that for the music he makes.  Not nearly as nasal as Dylan, he does carry a similar straightforward manner of expressing himself, largely odes to those disenfranchised by the (conservative) powers that be – the government, the rich, big business,…  Whether or not you agree with him, he is particularly gifted at writing observational stories that wrap current events and the unfortunate into a whole, often with biting wit.   On this occasion, when every pronunciation could be clearly heard, it’s clear that whether on record or singing a song for the 1,000th+ time, McMurtry holds to his convictions from the first telling to the last. 

In the two previous shows, there were several fans who sang along during their favorite songs, but this audience bought in fully, laughing at his quips and enjoying both his pointed and exaggerated lyrical pricks.  Whether it was the later show, the intimate setting, or the solo performance, it worked.

As for his guitar work… even up close, McMurtry makes it seem simple.  He mines similar notes from song to song, yet each song sounds different.  As the highly regarded Mr. Piper said, a guitarist is only good as his right hand, and McMurtry’s was on the mark, alternately picking a base line while strumming or finding other notes.  As is appropriate, there’s as much attitude in his playing as there is in his lyrics.

McMurtry for whatever reason has never benefited from the “next big artist” tag that came to him early in his career.  It’s unfortunate that his own press kit feels the need to mention that he’s the son of (famed) Western author Larry McMurtry.  For music lovers, though, that means he remains both affordable and convenient, frequently at a venue near you.  Otherwise, find guidance in his typical closing:  “If you’re ever in Austin on a Wednesday night, come see me at the Continental Club.”  A good time.

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