James McMurtry might not be the first name that comes to mind when the word “rocker” is mentioned, but once again he proves that whatever self-imposed restrictions are in place for his studio recordings, the gloves come off in concert. Live in Europe takes the baton from Live in Aught Three in stride and turns the pace up a notch thanks to a stellar quartet of backing musicians and a catalogue of material that continues to stockpile chestnuts. The album was recorded in early 2009 on McMurtry’s first-ever European tour, where he performed for appreciative crowds in Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Scotland. The audio CD features eight selections assembled from those dates and is paired with a six-song DVD filmed in Amsterdam. Notorious for objecting to fans recording and/or filming his shows, this album offers the first authorized footage of McMurtry in concert.
Use whatever terminology you wish for his artistry, be it rebel Americana, spirited counterculture rock, or literate character-driven storytelling of the highest order. There are songwriters and there are storytellers, and then there are those few that consistently excel in both areas. He might be genetically driven to superior wordplay thanks to his famous author father and English teacher mother, but that six-string wrangling you hear comes only from a lifetime of letting Keith Richards and the like drill through your ears. McMurtry’s vocal range is fairly limited, and his style is only moderately beyond the spoken word in cadence, but there’s no doubt about the passion behind the words. Few social observations pack the wallop that is “We Can’t Make It Here”, even when performed in countries where it does not apply. “We were hoping we’re not going to need this song much longer”, he says by way of introduction, “For now it stays in the set”.
For a man who writes with such passion — and occasionally angry frustration — his stage demeanor is fairly low-key and as world-weary as his characters, although not devoid of wit and sarcasm. His deadpan intro of “Now we’re gonna play the hits” precedes a ten minute version of “Choctaw Bingo”, and later in the set he humbly thanks the crowd for the privilege of performing in their country and hopes they will have him back someday. This Texas drawl of a stage presence is amusingly offset by Jon Dee Graham, who steps onstage to join the band for a song. Apparently upset by a local reviewer giving his set a lukewarm review, Graham publicly and angrily castigates the writer before launching into a gasoline-and-fire version of “Laredo” that leaves scorch marks on the rafters.
McMurtry has proven that he can rock the house just fronting a trio (with the lock-step rhythm section of Ronnie Johnson on bass and Darren Hess on drums), so when Tim Holt steps in to add some stinging lead guitar, this swamp rock machine hums even brighter. But bringing legendary organist Ian McLagan on board in recent years was a stroke of genius. Mac plays the Hammond B3 organ like few others can, and even when limited to a multi-function electric keyboard (as he is here) he can emulate those sounds with soul. Adding subtle textures as he jabs and parries with McMurtry, he’s a thinking man’s audio foil who can fatten up a rocking blues as easily as he can wring the emotions that subliminally sell a murder ballad. Unlike the initial tour supporting Just Us Kids, when the band was stripped back down to a three piece, McLagan was along for the ride on the European leg and rewards his host tenfold. Although he has his own storied career to attend to, I hope he’s available whenever McMurtry decides to roll tape, because they work beautifully together.
Five of the eight audio tracks are from the Just Us Kids album, although sadly the scathing “Cheney’s Toy” and “God Bless America” are not replicated here. The arrangements are similar, but the presentation more muscular and loose thanks to an intuitive relationship between the musicians. “Bayou Tortue” and “Freeway View” rock hard, allowing for nice duels between McMurtry’s fretwork and McLagan’s boogie-woogie keyboards (with a pinch of Credence DNA for good measure). Other standouts are “Hurricane Party” and “Ruby and Carlos”, two songs where the characterization is so precise that one could be mesmerized by the story alone, the music enhancing it like an appropriate film score. If there is a knock on this album, it’s that the CD and the DVD clock in at about 40 minutes apiece. Surely there were other gems that could have been included?
Some may carp that this is his second live album in a short span of time, but that’s a hollow complaint. His studio output has remained fairly consistent, albeit an album every three years as opposed to a more frantic pace when the major label machinery was humming, but considering the energy he wields in a live performance, I not only don’t object to the albums, I wonder why he doesn’t record his new material on stage rather than in the studio. It’s difficult enough to build and maintain momentum as an independent musician and performer, let alone without a supportive radio format to champion his material to a wide audience. But if he continues to take no prisoners on the road like he did here, the lack of an appropriate music format won’t matter. How ironic is it that for a man of words, it is word of mouth that will support and grow his audience?