Austin, Texas is home for James McMurtry, son of novelist Larry McMurtry of “Lonesome Dove” fame, and one of the most alluring and evocative American singer-songwriters of the past 30 years. But on Tuesday, the packed Sportsmen’s Tavern seemed to make McMurtry feel that Buffalo might be his adoptive hometown. That’s in keeping with the name being bandied about by Sportsmen’s Tavern loyalists over the past year, one that is being lived up to by the club itself – “Austin North,” a reference to the welcoming atmosphere and “all music all the time” attitude that defines the hip music scene revolving around that Texas town.
McMutry has not played Buffalo since the late ’80s, shortly after the release of his John Mellencamp-produced debut, “Too Long in the Wasteland.” One fan among the sold-out Sportsmen’s crowd last night told me he’d been at that show, which took place at Nietzsche’s in Allentown, and that “there were maybe 25 people there.” Times have changed, to say the least, and on Tuesday, McMurtry was welcomed as a conquering hero by a room full of hard-core music fanatics who understood that he is a progenitor of the Americana and alt-country movements that erupted roughly a decade after “Too Long in the Wasteland” first arrived.
A low-key guy with a penetrating gaze and a bearing that screams stoicism, McMurtry’s greatest gift is as a lyricist. He is a supremely masterful craftsman whose songs come across as wryly observed mini-novels, replete with believable characters, finely turned tropes, and a sardonic sense of humor not unlike a southern version of the late Warren Zevon’s urban existentialist persona. These songs can make you laugh, but make no mistake – they are meant to break your heart. A sense of longing, loss, disappointment, the elusive nature of redemption – these are the colors in McMurtry’s paintbox, and with them, he conjures images of equal parts pathos and hilarity. They’re damn catchy little numbers, too.
That said, McMurtry is also a killer rhythm guitarist and a strong singer who spent Tuesday’s show making it all look ridiculously easy. Fronting a trio, with himself as the sole guitarist, McMurtry had no trouble covering what, on his records, are often double-tracked, interwoven guitar figures. He used pedal effects judiciously to add color and nuance, and pulled off the impressive feat of soloing and playing rhythm guitar simultaneously, as if it was no big deal. The tunes came across as a singular blend of country, Americana, rock ’n’ roll, and the ambling, jammy feel of circa-1972 Grateful Dead.
Opening with the steaming swamp strut of “Bayou Tortous,” McMurtry and band owned the packed Sportsmen’s. It got real hot in there real quick, as the three musicians dug deep into a set highlighted by some of McMurtry’s most poignant songs, among them “Just Us Kids,” “Red Dress,” “Choctaw Bingo” and the “Don Quixote with a sad guitar” set-closer “No More Buffalo.”
The Sportsmen’s Tavern really is becoming “Austin North,” and owner Duane Hall’s dreams of transforming the bar into a world-class, multi-tiered, musician- and fan-friendly concert club – developed over years – have been actualized. No wonder McMurtry seemed to feel so at home. What a night.