Here's a bit of James McMurtry's history. He's the son of Larry McMurtry, a guy who's written a few books you may have heard of: The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove (he also co-wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain and won an Oscar for it). John Cougar Mellencamp co-produced his (James's, that is) debut album, Too Long In the Wasteland. My favorite music critic, Robert Christgau, named McMurtry's song "We Can't Make It Here" the best song of the 2000's. After reading his C.V. and listening to his music, no way was I gonna miss his show at Neurolux.
I got down there a song or two into the opening set. The substantial crowd was comprised mainly of older and much less arty folks than your typical Neurolux show, but I could see a few hipster types sprinkled about. I found it refreshing to see the ironic plaid-and-mustache crowd mixing with the straight plaid-and-mustache crowd.
Austin, TX-based singer-songwriter Jonny Burke opened the show. Armed with only a couple of guitars and borrowing James McMurtry's dummer, Darren Hess, Burke sang his smart lyrics in a nice, raspy, punk-schooled sneer. He cites Townes Van Zandt, Chuck Berry and Richard Pryor as influences on his Facebook page, and you could hear them all in his songs. A very good start to the night.
After Jonny Burke came James McMurtry and his backing band. When they're back at their homebase of Austin, these dudes apparently have a weekly gig at the Continental Club. That would make sense, considering how tight and sharp their playing was, and would be one more feather in that famed city's cap. Between McMurtry and Tim Holt's terse guitar solos, "Cornbread"'s stalwart basslines and Darren Hess's unflashily expert drumming, they sounded like Friday night in the honky tonk bar of your dreams. The real star of the show, however, were the sardonic, supremely detailed lyrics. McMurtry's deadpan baritone pushed his words front and center, and they definitely rewarded close scrutiny. There wasn't a remotely weak song in the whole pack, but my personal favorites included a solo acoustic "prototype" about all the things that make an unnamed ladyfriend so special ("She can change her own fuses, she can fix her own car... She don't scare easy, but she can be pushed too far."); "Hurricane Party," a clear-eyed dissection of an aging wastrel ("Some insurance man biker's yelling out for one more beer,/ But a part-time pirate just can't get much respect around here."); and most especially the aforementioned "We Can't Make It Here," a righteous litany of the myriad ways in which our country is fucked right now (wars in the Middle East, jobs getting shipped overseas, mounting debts, etc.). He'd stopped playing that last song for a while, McMurtry said, but he decided to dust it off because he still found it all too relevant. No lie there.
You can find info about James McMurtry and Jonny Burke on Facebook and elsewhere online. And if you talk to Speedy Gray, ask him about the time McMurtry played the restaurant he was working at.