The Continental Club in Austin, Texas is a legendary venue and I’m envious of its patrons as they have the chance to hear the imperious James McMurtry and gorge on his unparalleled collection of bluesy, swampy, rocking, bar-room blues very regularly.
The rugged, award-winning McMurtry’s second ever Scottish gig ended more than seven years of live musical starvation for his fans, who filed out truly satisfied with what he and his hot, hot band served up over 80 blistering minutes.
He was in brilliant form at this Celtic Connections’ show – droll, fierce, rattling out his stories with incomparable wordplay involving fascinating characters while cracking out great licks with a sneer rarely off his face: and throughout, his mean, three-piece team stung and chomped and bruised, letting off steam in robust fashion. But, they caved into calm gentleness when required as on the take-a-deep-breath beauty of You Got To Me, from 2015’s glorious album, Complicated Game.
Bayou Tortue opened the show, rolled out with the fervour of a man who couldn’t wait to kickstart the action. And the tension in the scintillating Red Dress – from St Mary of the Woods released 15 years ago – was cranked up by the band in particularly lithe and moody mode. “Remember when we’d get together / Burn the candle don’t you know / Smoke and drink and live forever / No one there to tell us no” The displeasure of the song’s narrator gradually rose and seeped into every line and word as we were towed along on a grinding beat and biting guitar with McMurtry at his scowling, don’t-you-dare-mess-with-me best.
Copper Canteen from the latest album was terrific: storytelling of small-town life set to an uncanny, lazy rhythm with the craftsman’s words spilling forth : “We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens” sang the gun-cleaning narrator. These Things I’ve Come To Know – McMurtry alone and acoustic – was calm and comforting and then Choctaw Bingo got the no-holds barred treatment with lightning quick words, swirling guitar chords and a pounding rhythm that had us jumping.
A McMurtry visit is a rare treat all in all – but oh, so tasty it was.
Also appearing was Nathan Bell, who was no slouch either, lyrically, and delivered a memorable, if too brief a set. His tales of men struggling to support families in America were poignant, expertly penned and delivered with heart. They are the focus of his current remarkable album, I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love and his delivery of the title track was intense, thoughtful and uplifting. Nathan Bell deserves a wider audience – clearly, the Oran Mor patrons were more than hooked after this, his first-ever UK gig.