James McMurtry at Club Helsinki

Politician: 1. a person experienced in the art or science of government.

I get the feeling James McMurtry would be rather insulted if you called him a politician, yet that’s exactly what he is in the truest sense of the word. His songs are politically charged narratives set to a folksy backdrop then ignited by the flames of human emotion. I suppose he is unlike politicians, however, for there is no shortage of people listening to and believing in his message. He played a show at Club Helsinki in beautiful Hudson, NY last Friday and I have never seen the venue so packed.

Opening for James McMurtry was Ray Mason, a good musical appetizer. He plays along the same lines as McMurtry, but with less conviction, politics, and poetry. His music was fun though, slightly sarcastic and quirky. The music was simple enough at first but gradually developed into a fuller form, and Mason played in a variety of styles. He’s like a sixty-year-old musically inclined stand up comedian. Although there was a TV show based on one, I have never heard anyone write a song about zip codes, as Ray Mason did… And you know what? I kind of liked it. He also made fun of his own age on-stage, saying he doesn’t smoke, drink or have many vices anymore, but he does drink one cup of coffee a day and has “just enough ear wax” to keep him off-kilter. Not enough to make him dizzy, he said, but enough to feel slightly off. He drew laughs with that — and I’m still trying to decide whether it was a joke or not.

After a short set by Mason, folk legend James McMurtry came on for a rare solo acoustic performance. He came out to the stage amidst applause, but apologized and said he’d be right back because he forgot his picks. After he came back and launched into his set, someone yelled out a request and McMurtry responded with, “We’re going to start that, are we? That’s okay. Everyone yell out the songs they want to hear, and no one will know what they’re gonna hear.” I, for one, was content to listen to whatever he played in whatever order he pleased. Each song he sings has a haunting quality that aches with lyric beauty yet delivers an empowering message. It’s that surprising duality that seizes you, and instead of being whiny (like so many folk musicians are it seems), James McMurtry challenges his listeners with his songs. Even McMurtry’s appearance was contrasting: his glasses and well-groomed facial hair gave him a distinguished look, while a weathered black hat sat atop his head, wild gray hair spilling out from underneath. He’s some sort of cross between a bum and a gentleman, and his music is similarly split.

Theologian Joseph Campbell describes a hero as someone who has achieved inner peace, who sees and perceives things with a clarity untarnished by personal opinion, and McMurtry seems to fit that criteria as if it was custom-made for him. He has been shaped by the experiences he’s had, the places he’s been, the people he’s seen, and he is not confined to societal norms and standards. Whereas Ray’s music speaks mainly to an older audience, McMurtry’s music speaks to everyone, transcending generational boundaries. Not everyone can satisfy my musical appetite with a solo performance, and James McMurtry didn’t — he left me wanting much, much more. His music seems to create an unseen force, one that reaches into the hearts of every single person in the audience, holding their attention with an iron grip as they cling to every word and note. McMurtry has on-stage intensity, looking straight at members of the audience while he sings and plays, directly addressing them with his shining eyes (if his eyes aren’t closed). At the end of his set he must have been tired, having packed an incredible number of songs into his show, but had no choice but to come back for an encore because the audience wouldn’t stop clapping. He ended his performance with a song called “Holiday” and, although with that the night sadly came to a close, the messages present in the songs continue to live on long after the last note has vanished.

*After taking several videos at the show, I asked James if it would be okay to post them on-line, but he said that he prefers if video recordings are not posted so, in honor of his wishes, I have no videos to share from the superb performance.

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