James McMurtry Treats Portland, OR To Texas Roots Rock and Gritty Folk Lyricism (SHOW REVIEW)

James McMurtry has always been a teller of truths, even though most of his songs are fiction. Through the characters that inhabit his music he addresses the issues that face rural America, many of which are the same issues that Donald Trump used to con his supporters into voting for him. But with his own dry vocal delivery and musical mix of folk and roots rock, McMurtry has never held back. While it’s been too damn long since he released an album (2015’s Complicated Game), the Texas songwriter has never stopped touring and on Wednesday, August 7th he came to Portland, Oregon for a show at the Aladdin Theater.

For those that have seen James McMurtry’s legendary Wednesday night residency at the Continental Club, it felt a bit odd to see him playing an actual theater thousands of miles away. Along with his band, McMurtry would bring the same tone to his performance in Portland. He would touch on songs from nearly all of his nine studio albums, from the chugging country blues of “Bayou Tortous” and the crawling rocker “Red Dress” to dropping major power chords on the choogling “What’s The Matter Now” and even laying into a hip-hop-like lyrical cadence on the hyperactive “How’m I Gonna Find You Now”. Softer moments would come during the accordion-laced tale of down-on-luck workingmen “Copper Canteen” and the melancholy romance of “You Got To Me”.

He would speak to the nomad life of a touring musician with “I Ain’t Got a Place” before launching into his biggest fan favorite, “Choctaw Bingo”, a sprawling, fast-paced story about a family meth ring with an incessant groove that makes it ideal to dance along with. Here we got the perfect balance of literary wit and top notch guitar jamming that has always set McMurtry apart from his peers. Newer tune “State of the Union” spoke to our divisive political climate and showed how tuned in McMurtry is to everything that is going on while getting the audience excited for his long overdue new album. Balancing country, roots rock, and biting folk, McMurtry and his band would charge through other longtime favorites like “Painting By Numbers”, “No More Buffalo”, and the catchy “Childish Things” off his 2005 album of the same name.

Those who have seen McMurtry perform in the last five years didn’t get any surprises in Portland, but this hardly mattered considering how relevant, sometimes painfully so given the current social climate, his songs are today. What the audience did get is a timeless canon of songs from a troubadour who has never been afraid to tell it like it is. Focusing on the little details and hardships of life is something few songwriters do in a time when many artists are caught up in preserving their self-image. In Portland, James McMurtry presented his catalogue of tunes with barely a smile (that’s pretty much his thing), cutting out all the bullshit and connecting with the raw emotions and struggles that connect us all.

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One Response

  1. Those of us who live in Austin are privileged to see McMurtry nearly every week. His Wednesday midnight show is great, but his solo acoustic show, Tuesday evenings at the Continental Club Gallery is transcendent.

    His iconic ‘Choctaw Bingo’ is much more than a light portrait of a family meth ring. It is, rather, a deep and poignant snapshot of the transformation and degradation of rural America – of independent family farmers displaced by corporate factory farms, of generations left forgotten and stranded by the corporatizing of America, left without opportunity or hope for their futures.

    McMurtry writes with deep honesty, sympathy and insight of rural Oklahoma, the fishermen of Chesapeake Bay and old Myrtle Beach, the working folk in Wisconsin’s winter who struggle in a society and economy that have left them behind. And he writes equal truth of families who have transitioned to middle class success on Long Island Sound.

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