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S aturating myself with James McMurtry‘s Just Us Kids for the past two weeks paid off big-time tonight as the Austin singer leaned heavy on the new record, playing eight of the album’s 12 cuts.

It’s an incredibly strong record, and McMurtry brought it to the stage smoothly, with his Texas drawl right at the center of the mix. I’d known him mostly as a word man up until tonight, but I came away just as impressed by his dynamic and fluid lead guitar playing.

McMurtry is an artist I picked up from my dad, courtesy of an old friend of his I grew up calling Crazy Uncle Don Becker. McMurtry has kind of settled into my head as one of the Last of the Great Troubadors. He’s a masterful word-slinger, building his best songs out of long narratives, drawing crazy and tragic characters with his slow drawl, then drilling the whole rich scene into your skull with a simple repeated hook.

He opened as a tight three-piece combo, and added a second guitarist about halfway through the nearly two-hour set. McMurtry’s no stranger to Tucson – he attended the University of Arizona in the early 1980s – and he looked the part, comfortable in a guyabara and fedora, with his “long hair turnin’ gray.”

It’ll get passed over by most of the indie-rock set, but Just Us Kids is certainly one of the strongest records of this year. It’s a dense and thoughtful record, political at times (think Steve Earle’s The Revolution Starts Now, but with more snarl than shout) but just as often about the other struggles of American life – growing old, falling out of love and the various disconnects that force their way in to complicate what ought to be simple about relationships.

McMurtry started out with “Bad Enough,” one of four songs he played from his last record, 2005’s Childish Things. “Just Us Kids” came third, and with it one of McMurtry’s greatest songwriting tricks: somehow making time seem to disappear, unnoticed, as life rushes by. The song opens with two teenagers hanging out in a parking under the great unknown banner of the future, and has them starting at retirement before they know it. And McMurtry snaps it off with a shrug of his shoulders: “It’s a damn short movie / How’d we ever get here?”

“Hurricane Party” has its narrator stuck at the end of the road, knowing what he’s missing without having much of a clue as to where or when his failures struck. What’s repeated in the chorus is a kind of empty resignation: “There’s no one to talk to / When the lines go down.”

Joking that the time had come in the set to play the big hits, McMurtry launched into “Choctaw Bingo,” one of the strangest songs ever written. It’s a spastic talking blues hybrid, dropped on top of a dirty blues beat, with McMurtry describing one psychotic relative after another on a trip to a family reunion that’s balanced on the axis of the “North Texas-Southern Oklahoma methamphetamine industry.” Just before he got to the verse about the narrator’s lust for his leggy second cousins, McMurtry said he was happy the crowd was movin’, because “The good part is better if you’re movin’ when it happens.”

The epic “We Can’t Make It Here” followed, with its downhill rumbling indictment of the economic and social decay brought about by the Bush years. First released nearly four years ago, the song has grown an extra layer of simmering snarl and I’m sure McMurtry could just as easily add a few more verses now that the second Bush term has brought a whole new heap of struggles.

The rest of the band departed for the next number, the heartbreaking “Ruby & Carlos,” a tale of mismatched lovers who are both on the losing end of their disintegrating relationship. “Ruby & Carlos” and “Hurricane Party” form the 13-minute emotional core of Just Us Kids and it was interesting to hear the set list split them apart, giving each more time to shine up against some of the rougher tunes.

McMurtry returned to the politics with a vengeance on “God Bless America (pat mAcdonald Must Die)” which calls to task the war profiteers that have emerged from every corner as the Bush team raided the treasury for corporate handouts in the name of “Iraqi Freedom.” Sadly, McMurtry didn’t follow that up with “Cheney’s Toy.”

On “Ruins of the Realm,” another Just Us Kids stand-out, McMurtry strapped on a mando-guitar, a duck-billed platypus of an instrument, an electric 12 stringer with a mandolin-sized neck. The instrument’s echoing chime itself is hypnotic, and as McMurtry’s lyrics circle around and around it all meshes perfectly.

The show wrapped up with an electrifying jam of “Too Long In The Wasteland,” with McMurtry and Tim Holt taking turns on lead guitar as if they were lighting off fireworks – you’d still see the smoke from one as the other one started burning.

Originally published June 21, 2008 at Catfish Vegas presents…

(Note: Long before I started freelance music writing, I would occasionally dabble in the same type of stuff. I’ll periodically dig some of the good stuff out of the past and re-post them here.)

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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