The American dream? McMurtry at the Egg.
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
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,
Are Not Comedians
We Are Scientists
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
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
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.
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.
Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart
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.