James McMurtry & the Heartless Bastards
Hummingbird Stage & Taproom
December 10, 2008
“This is country music for Kiss fans,” explained Texas songsmith James McMurtry to the ardent crowd which had assembled at the Hummingbird Stage & Taproom for their middle of the week jolt of live music. That explanation is about the best summation available if one were to try and categorize the rock ‘n’ roll prose of quite possibly the most observant musical storyteller to ever be part of a power trio. With a sound that cut through the dancing crowd with equal parts twang and churn, James’s first stop through Middle Georgia was welcomed with Southern grace.
Brushing away any bullshit with his matter-of-fact delivery and ornery presence, James McMurtry’s suitcase of songs read as a narrative to the overlooked and underappreciated of Anytown, USA. Songs like “Levelland” and “Lights of Cheyenne” caught that verbose gift of McMurtry’s that projected the unsung fringe of society through the speakers to the fervent crowd.
With Ronnie Johnson on bass and Daren Hess on drums, the Heartless Bastards kept a solid rock groove flowing just under the unique guitar riffs of McMurtry. With its wharping guitar tone and build, “We Can’t Make It Here” is about the only thing about the societal struggles which emerged during the Bush/Cheney administration worth dancing about; McMurtry’s Lou Reed styled halted singing approach provided a biting commentary along with a garage rock intensity.
The Heartless Bastards provide the movement and the emotion through their structure and lyrics. “Restless” has that full band feel which doesn’t allow you to stand still.
On the other hand, “Ruby And Carlos” was given the bare acoustic treatment it deserved, as McMurtry covered the stage alone, and brought a struggling couple’s story to life. “He sees it all behind his eyes, his hands go searching but come up dry” is a fine example of what a modern day country song should be about – what slipped away.
However, the power surged into the redline when guitar tech Tim Holt joined the powerful rhythm section of the Heartless Bastards on the first rate rocker, “Childish Things. “ The adjusted band truly expanded their sound and didn’t miss the opportunity to play off of each other.
The veritable barn burner of the night, “Too Long in the Wasteland,” has that tough guitar growl that both band and bar can both lean into. It’s a fitting send off for a band that spends so much time on the road.
Taking the outfit on its first European tour beginning in January, the sound will expand once more, along with the size of the band, with the touring addition of Small Faces/Faces alum Ian McLagan. Having previously lent his talents on the organ to several studio albums alongside McMurtry, this will be the first tour that has brought the musical legend out on stage with a chance to perform those songs live.
With his recent release Just Us Kids making literary great Stephen Kings’ top ten albums of 2008, James McMurtry continues to perform short stories accented by the attitude of an electric guitar; he’s about the only storyteller who leaves scuff marks on your shoes.