Thursday, November 9 - Doors 8pm - $18 adv.
James McMurtry spins stories with a poet's pen ("Long Island Sound") and a painter's precision ("She Loves Me"). Proof: The acclaimed songwriter's new Complicated Game. McMurtry's first collection in six years spotlights a craftsman in absolutely peak form as he turns from political toward personal ("These Things I've Come to Know," "You Got to Me"). "The lyrical theme is mostly about relationships," McMurtry says. "It's also a little about the big old world verses the poor little farmer or fisherman. I never make a conscious decision about what to write about."
Complicated Game delivers McMurtry's trademark story songs time and again ("Copper Canteen," "Deaver's Crossing"), but the record brings a new (and certainly no less energetic) sonic approach. First, recall blistering beats and gnashing guitars from his magnum opus Just Us Kids (2008). Now, unplug. "The label head wanted more acoustic," McMurtry explains. "We built everything as we went so we ended up with more acoustic guitar as we went. We just played whatever sounded right for a given song, but we weren't necessarily saying this is an acoustic record."
Exhibit A: "How'm I Gonna Find You Now." The record's lead single boasts buoyant banjos and driving drums as endlessly energetic as anything electrified. Whiplash vocals further frenzy the beat. "I've got a cup of black coffee so I don't get lazy/I've got a rattle in the dashboard driving me crazy," McMurtry effectively raps. "If I hit it with my fist, it'll quit for a little while/Gonna have to stop to smoke in another mile/Headed into town gonna meet you at the mercantile/Take you to the Sonic get you grinning like a crocodile."
Such vibrant vignettes consistently turn heads. They have for a quarter century now. Clearly, he's only improving with time. "James McMurtry is one of my very few favorite songwriters on Earth and these days he's working at the top of his game," says Americana all-star Jason Isbell. "He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don't think anybody writes better lyrics." "James writes like he's lived a lifetime," echoes iconic roots rocker John Mellencamp. Yes. Spin "South Dakota." You'll hear.
Further evidence: McMurtry's Just Us Kids (2008) and Childish Things (2005). The former earned his highest Billboard 200 chart position in nearly two decades and notched Americana Music Award nominations. Meanwhile, Childish Things scored endless critical praise and spent six full weeks topping the Americana Music Radio chart in 2005 and 2006. In 2006, Childish Things won the Americana Music Association's Album of the Year and "We Can't Make It Here" was named the rapidly rising organization's Song of the Year.
Of course, Complicated Game doubles down on literate storytelling longtime enthusiasts expect. Recall high watermarks past: "Childish Things," "Choctaw Bingo," "Peter Pan," "Levelland," and "Out Here in the Middle" only begin the list. (Yes, Robert Earl Keen covered those last two, "Levelland" remaining a live staple.) Just Us Kidsalone includes fan favorites "Hurricane Party," "Ruby and Carlos" and "You'd a Thought." High watermarks deliver equal measures depth and breadth and pierce hearts with sharp sociopolitical commentary ("Fireline Road").
More history: McMurtry critically lauded first album Too Long in the Wasteland (1989) was produced by John Mellencamp and marked the beginning of a series of acclaimed projects for Columbia and Sugar Hill Records. In 1996, McMurtry received a Grammy nomination for Long Form Music Video for Where'd You Hide the Body. Additionally, It Had to Happen (1997) received the American Indie Award for Best Americana Album.
In 2004, McMurtry released the universally lauded Live in Aught-Three on Compadre Records. The following year, Childish Things notched arguably his most critical praise, spending six weeks at No. 1 on the Americana Music Radio Chart in 2005 and 2006. In September 2006, Childish Things and "We Can't Make It Here" won the Americana Music Awards for Album and Song of the Year, respectively. McMurtry received more Americana Music Award nominations for 2008's Just Us Kids. This album marked his highest Billboard 200 chart position in more than nearly two decades.
In 2009, Live in Europe was released, capturing the McMurtry band's first European tour and extraordinary live set. Along with seasoned band members Ronnie Johnson, Daren Hess, and Tim Holt, the disc features special guests Ian McLagan (The Faces) and Jon Dee Graham (True Believers, Skunks). Also, for the first time ever, video of the James McMurtry Band's live performance is available on the included DVD.
The poignant lyrics of his immense catalog still ring true today. In 2011, "We Can't Make It Here" was cited among The Nation's "Best Protest Songs Ever." "'We Can't Make It Here,'" Bob Lefsetz wrote, "has stood the test of time because of its unmitigated truth."
McMurtry tours year round and consistently throws down unparalleled powerhouse performances. The Washington Post notes: "Much attention is paid to James McMurtry's lyrics and rightfully so: He creates a novel's worth of emotion and experience in four minutes of blisteringly stark couplets. What gets overlooked, however, is that he's an accomplished rock guitar player ... serious stuff, imparted by a singularly serious band."
The most northern of the New Mexico pueblos, the hamlet of Taos, sits approximately 7,000 feet above sea level. It is an hour and half drive north of Santa Fe, or rather, just remote enough to stave off the casually curious person. Fiercely independent, the town, steeped in natural beauty, has long attracted artists and freethinkers of every stripe. It is within this bouillabaisse of nature, art and spirituality that we encounter Max Gomez. A young singer-songwriter in the seasoned vein of Jackson Browne and John Prine, Gomez grew up splitting his time between the sloping mountains of Taos and, for a period, the rolling plains of Kansas. On his family's ranch in Kansas, Gomez still lends a hand with chores but relishes the time he can spend out on the lake practicing the art of fly-fishing. But it is in Taos, where he was ultimately inspired to explore his art and the ethos behind it.
The son of an artisanal furniture craftsman, Gomez grew up watching his father, learning the tools of the trade while simultaneously learning his way around the frets of his guitar. The workmanlike quality of his songwriting carries over from his days spent in the woodshed through an economy of words, phrase and narrative. A blues enthusiast from an early age, the young Gomez immersed himself in the primordial Delta and traditional folk blues of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy and, of course, Robert Johnson. Though 1,200 miles and decades removed from his Mississippi heroes, Gomez had his imagination to fill in the gaps. Having honed his chops on the blues, Max turned his interest to traditional American folk music; "I'm influenced by the old stuff," Max admits. "To me, that's the best music." As the Harry Smith anthology gave way to contemporary masters Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark and John Hiatt, so did Gomez's songwriting. "The songs I write are not real straightforward. You have to decode them. I like when the listener has to create their own story, rather than be told what's happening." In short, storytelling that oscillates between everyman poetics and enigma.
In the span of its ten songs, the Jeff Trott (Stevie Nicks, Sheryl Crow) produced Rule The World traverses varying themes of heartbreak, regret, young love, desperation and, ultimately redemption. "Run From You", the album's first single and co-written with Trott, reveals Max's story telling skills. Gomez explains, "Sometimes I refer to this one as an anti-love song. We all come across trouble and often take the wrong road even when we know we should turn back." With his smoky voice, Gomez sings of desperation for change on "Rule The World" and on "Never Say Never", young love is likened to a "cool kiss in the August summer heat," as the protagonist laments its fleeting nature. While the LP's pop instincts are evident, Rule The World is balanced by Gomez's love of roots music; see the blues-driven "Ball And Chain."
While many young artists write songs with the mere intention of entertaining the masses, Max's songs are filled with the raw emotion and capture the spirit of those who came before him. In an age of ever increasing false fronts and posturing, it's rare to catch a glimpse of a soul bared. But that is exactly what Gomez has done.