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The American dream? McMurtry at the Egg.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Shouting Stories

By David Greenberger

James McMurtry

The Egg, Nov. 13

I can’t speak for the entire history of the Egg’s Swyer Theatre, but James McMurtry’s show last week was the loudest I’ve been to in that room. Not loud that makes me say, “It hurts,” but loud that makes me say, “Thank you!” McMurtry was fronting a trio with drummer Daren Hess and bass player Ronnie Johnson, and they casually pummeled the room for nearly two hours. Dressed no differently than they would to go to the supermarket (unless they’re part of the Secret Society of Formally Adorned Grocery Shoppers), the three men placed the focus squarely on McMurtry’s songs and their own simply constructed but powerfully rendered grooves.

The set was drawn largely from the recent Just Us Kids album, which finds McMurtry continuing to explore the downside of the American dream. He’s at his most potent when locating broken dreams and fractious circumstances on the shoulders of beaten-down characters. (Some sample lines: “I’ve got a room with a freeway view,” “I was lookin’ at every woman but mine,” “Now I should probably be homeward bound, but there’s no one to talk to when the lines go down.”) His blue-collar workers, wounded vets, and drunken dreamers are drawn with little of the warming rays of sunshine or glimpses of redemption that inform Springsteen’s characters. And that’s a very good thing indeed: Except for McMurtry’s occasional reliance on cliched phrases, his songs haunt because of the small details that make the people and places in them so vivid.

The trio were quite the revved-up engine, with Johnson’s bass anchoring while Hess created tensions by switching from accenting downbeats to upbeats at opportune moments for maximum drama as well as musical dazzle. McMurtry utilized a slew of effects pedals that let his variously tuned guitars expand and contract while never falling prey to the wah-wah-pedal disease (also known as the “Hey-look-at-me!” Syndrome, which, these days has apparently become the Photoshop Disease, but don’t get me started on that rant).

McMurtry was last through the Albany area nearly two years ago. At that time he played Revolution Hall, a room to which his music is perfectly suited (perhaps, in part, because the narrative in some of his songs could be set in such an environ). But hearing them in the more reserved Swyer added a tantalizing element, as if the band and the audience had snuck in and at any moment could be booted out. Ah! The sweet exhilaration of loud music coupled with words of anger, dismay, concern, and outrage.

They Are Not Comedians

We Are Scientists

Valentine’s, Nov. 14

Watching We Are Scientists perform live, you get the sense that they want to be another band. They expel the quirky guitar licks and Moog-synth lines of the Cars and the jerky rhythms of the Clash, but their larger persona—manufactured with slick pop-rock, propulsive dance drumming, semi-ironic lyrics and between-song banter—mirrors some of their modern-day-peers from across the pond.

Although We Are Scientists have a lot in common with bands like Arctic Monkeys (with whom they have toured), Art Brut (with whom they released a split 7’ single) and Bloc Party, there is a lot separating them. For starters, they’re not British.

Also, their current drummer (presumably a touring musician) is a replacement for departed original drummer Michael Tapper, whose style gave the band a lot of their identity. And the band’s style is so all over the place they have not created the kind of recognizable edgy style that their British counterparts have.

Perhaps most important, they simply are not as witty. Maybe the Brits are just better comedians, but there was truly something sophomoric about the banter produced by We Are Scientists. On Friday the target of said onstage banter was Albany.

Bassist Chris Cain queried the crowd: “How many of you knew Albany was actually the capital of New York State?” Without waiting for a true response he responded sarcastically, “About a quarter of you.”

Cue the crickets.

“Any of you guys been to Bombers before?” inquired Cain. He continued, complementing the “ambiance” of the Lark Street burrito bar. Some in the crowd cheered; others smiled. “The burritos, not so much,” Cain concluded. Murray jumped in adding that he felt the opposite—digging the burritos but not the ambiance. A few errant giggles followed—and then, more crickets.

As for the music, the band opened their set with “After Hours” from their latest album, the critically-yawned-at Brain Thrust Mastery. The song itself was a highlight of the evening, its warm synths swelling up around the radio-friendly chorus delivered sturdily by singer-guitarist Keith Murray.

The lyrics of “After Hours” and the following “The Scene is Dead” focused on . . . well, having nothing better to do than getting blitzed. And although the topic could be spectacularly funny, both songs rang with a glum tone of promise deferred, of youth and opportunity wasted.

Lyrics like “No one has the guts to shut us out/Time means nothing/One final round/’Cause time means nothing” and “Everything’s another excuse/To keep from doing what I want to” indicate that perhaps the band (or at least Murray) know that they have a problem with tripping themselves up.

That is not to say We Are Scientists have wasted their talents; they are quite well-received in Europe. And they are quite capable of constructing a good single, just not a good album or set. If We Are Scientists drop some of their lazy lounge numbers and focus on the tight dance-rock songwriting that they display on “Don’t Move and Nobody Gets Hurt”—which sent the crowd into a dance frenzy on Friday night—the band would be doing themselves a favor. But its fairly clear they aren’t really into that sort of thing.

—David King

Party of Two

Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Nov. 16

There was no pedal-steel player onstage. Or a fiddler, or a lanky bassist standing alongside a drummer. And definitely no cowboy hats. But there were the familiar themes of heartbreak, whiskey, lives gone wrong, and the rural lifestyle last Sunday night at the Troy Music Hall when Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart, two of country’s greatest singers, sat down on two stools placed before five lava lamps and played a straight-up acoustic show on flattop guitars and mandolin. This was not a look backwards to country’s unplugged roots in the 1920s and ’30s, though—the music, which now mentions things like trading heifers online, has moved on.

To show their picking prowess, the Georgia-born Tritt, wearing leather pants and a black shirt, and the Mississippian Stuart, attired in blue jeans and a black Western shirt, began their single extended set with an untitled uptempo instrumental guitar duet. Their solos centered around an E chord, the most hard-edged sound a guitar can make. Tritt played up-the-neck leads more typical of an electric guitarist, while Stuart, who ultimately proved the better picker (a musical whiz kid, Stuart debuted at the Grand Ole Opry at age 13), displayed more of a bluegrass influence in his breaks.

Tritt, with more than 30 Billboard hits to his credit, followed with lead vocals on the love ballad “Feeling like a Fool,” and his gruff, powerful pipes recalled rocker Bob Seger. Stuart led next on his “Now That’s Country,” an affectionate ode to shotguns, groundhogs, pickup trucks, and front-porch rocking chairs. His singing was cleaner in tone and more rockabilly sounding than Tritt’s gritty style. Stuart continued his celebration of the bucolic existence with Tritt’s “Where Corn Don’t Grow,” a tearful tale of a son’s failed attempt to talk his overworked father out of farming (corn, though, is never in short supply in country songs).

Later, both men took turns performing solo, with Tritt contributing songs including “Country Ain’t Country Anymore,” a protest against encroaching development and a younger generation’s embrace of city-slicker ways. Stuart then delivered, among other tunes, a thumping “Hillbilly Rock,” and a breathtaking unaccompanied bluegrass mandolin instrumental.

The pair closed with Stuart’s song of pathos and booze, “The Whiskey Ain’t Working Anymore,” and encored with the Carter Family classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Country music may be an endless procession of tractors and back 40s, honky-tonks and long-gone wives, and times not being what they once were, but Tritt and Stuart’s stellar picking and singing made it fun.

—Glenn Weiser


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