James McMurtry - Friday June 5, 2015 - Biltmore Cabaret, Vancouver, BC
Trans-Canada Highway Is No Complicated Game
At one time, Canada was a more complicated game when it came to American musicians travelling north of the 49th parallel to showcase their talents and music. Last March, that James Gang from Austin, Texas hit the road in support of Complicated Game, James McMurtry’s latest masterpiece. The 47-date North American Tour commenced at the second Continental Club location in Houston, Texas. McMurtry might’ve skipped Vancouver altogether, but Friday was open, a true ‘Frei Tag’, celebrated unquietly at the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver, the only Canadian date of the tour.
“Now if you go down to Seattle and stay on the I-5 for a while, you get down to L.A., make a left and on I-10 you go for a while and come to Pensacola, Florida eventually. You keep going ways east. There’s a place called Emerald Coast. It’s supposed to be real pretty, supposed to have real white sand, clear water, green water. You can’t see it from the road because of the condos, but if you keep going a little further east, you come to Mexico Beach. The sand turns brown and water turns brackish, the population thins way out. It’s the only place that I’ve seen a bear cross the sand on a beach highway. Bears never cross a highway without a beach” explained McMurtry in a dry, near-monotone voice. “They call that the Forgotten Coast.” This great new song, ‘Forgotten Coast’ from the new album, was presented an hour into the just under 2-hour set.
The small venue was rockin’ loud all night and the 40-and-over crowd was very appreciative that James and his touring band had not forgotten the northwestern coast. Except for Mike “Cornbread” Traylor, the bass player, who has been with the group for four years, veteran drummer Daren Hess has been with the band for eighteen years, Tim Holt, the guitar tech who shares lead duties with James, has nineteen years of service including eight years of playing. Tim also plays accordion and mandolin.
Wearing his trademark, battered fedora, the storytelling master began the evening's set with ‘Bayou Tortous’ from 2008’s critically acclaimed ‘Just Us Kids’. There would be no Exit 811 on this night and certainly no turnaround with James on electric, Cornbread on bass and Daren on drums.
Seven years between albums is a long time and as James explained “About a million years ago, we went over to Europe and made a live record. It’s still pretty good. It’s available on Amazon and some of your finer record stores.” he continued. “And this song was on it.” The song James was referring to was the title track, ‘Just Us Kids’, from the previous studio album. And so between ‘Just Us Kids’ and ‘Complicated Game’, ‘Live in Europe’ was released, an album that die-hards would appreciate and want. That European tour in 2009 was a first. The band would go on to play in Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Scotland and Belgium. The music business has changed considerably, most of the money is now made from touring which is part of why it took so long between releases. The draw held up for all these years and when it started to plummet, it was time for a new album.
The next five songs would be from Complicated Game, starting with ‘How’m I Gonna Find You Now’. Tim Holt would finally join the trio on ‘Copper Canteen’, playing the squeezebox with James on acoustic. It was after ‘You Got To Me’ and shouts of “You guys are awesome, thanks for coming” and “thanks for coming across the border” that James explained that the troublesome was re-entering the U.S. “It’s coming back. Nobody treats an American as bad as an American border guard.”, a possible reference to 2011 when James and his band re-entered the United States at the Sweet Grass, Montana crossing after touring Western Canada (Lethbridge, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg) in late September/early October of that year. A forty minute or so border hassle had left a bad taste.
‘Ain’t Got a Place’ is a song that came fast to McMurtry. “I wrote this song back at the R Bar in New Orleans. Upstairs. If you can get that mutual writing, you can write a song, you gotta write fast though.”
The place erupted with the 13-minute ‘Choctaw Bingo’ which has become his signature song. California’s Lagunitas Brewing has been giving McMurtry tour support. Playing SXSW prior to the start of the tour, a billboard in Austin next to the Denny’s on I-35 uncovered the partnership between Lagunitas and the new record. The billboard read ‘The MOST DISINTERESTED MAN in THE WORLD pretty much always DRINKS BEER.’ James was drinking a Lagunitas IPA on this night before switching to red wine later in the evening.
It was James alone on stage with acoustic guitar in hand for the next song, the new, slow-to-moderate tempo ‘These Things I’ve Come To Know’. The switch from IPA to wine happened just before ‘Carlisle’s Haul’, but not before everyone was back on stage. “I don’t have a drummer yet” quipped James, “cause I sent him to the bar for some wine.” continuing monotonously. It took a few minutes before Tim would appear with acordian in hand, Cornbread with his bass guitar and Daren with the bandleader’s glass of red wine. James and his dobro were waiting patiently.
James McMurtry’s storytelling on ‘Childish Things’ never gets old or preachy with “Aunt Clara kept her bible right next to the phone in case she needed a quote.” That comfortable chair would have to wait at least another thirty minutes.
At the end of the night, James thanked the folks for coming out. “We hope to do this again someday, soon. I’m going to put on the Roadie hat tonight, ‘cause Tim is playing injured tonight. He can’t go lifting stuff.” He paused and then said “Repeat after me” (taking a sip of wine) before ending the show with ‘Too Long in the Wasteland’.
There would be no elephant in the room on this night and no complicated game for this different kind of travelling show somewhere near the Trans-Canada Highway.
Just Us Kids
How'm I Gonna Find You Now
You Got To Me
She Loves You
Ain't Got a Place
These Things I've Come To Know
Long Island Sound
Too Long in the Wasteland