James McMurtry: Taken By Patti Smith and Cyndi Lauper
Some hardened James McMurtry fans might be quite surprised about the gifted Americana singer-songwriter’s best concert choices.
McMurtry, who released his widely acclaimed Complicated Game album in February, says a Cyndi Lauper show at Austin’s Stubbs BBQ in June 2013 was the best concert he has seen. “It was the way she worked the crowd, and the magic she created,” he explains.
The show was part of Lauper’s “She’s So Unusual 30th Anniversary Tour.” Wearing black leather and lace and colorful hair extensions, Lauper performed her entire 1983 She’s So Unusual debut album. She began with the album’s first track, “Money Changes Everything,” written by The Brains’ Tom Gray, and followed with nine more songs in the order they were placed on the record.
According to the website Austin360, Lauper’s voice that night “was in fine form, and, while at 60 years old she wasn’t bopping around like she used to, she brought great energy to the stage.”
Lauper finished with a three-song encore, ending with her super hit “True Colors.”
“She returned for a breathtaking rendition of ‘True Colors,’” austin360 wrote. She began with an a capella introduction and, “in the midst of her most grandiose vocal flourish,” shouted “’Here’s to diversity! If all of us can be equal together, we’ll be a lot stronger,’ drawing the largest cheers of the night.’”
Opinions like that — particularly political ones — have long been a part of McMurtry’s music. His lyrics have taken shots at George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the Iraq War, while other lyrics about places he has visited and people he has met are as perceptive as those of the greatest American songwriters.
McMurtry has often been linked to John Mellencamp in many people’s minds—and for good reason. Mellencamp co-produced McMurtry’s debut album, Too Long in the Wasteland, and McMurtry performed on the soundtrack of Mellencamp’s film Falling from Grace. But to these ears, McMurtry’s rock-folk-country music and insightful, quirky lyrics might be more akin to a heartland Warren Zevon.
While Zevon could be boisterous, though, McMurtry keeps his cards close to the vest, and an interviewer may sometimes need a crowbar to pry out his innermost thoughts. McMurtry doesn’t say much about his favorite concerns as a spectator, but the best ones have obviously made an impression.
He says another “best” concert he saw was Patti Smith at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Oct. 3, 2010. The free festival presented six stages, including a dynamite line-up on the Towers of Gold Stage: Lucero at 11 a.m., McMurtry at 12:25 p.m., Randy Newman at 2:05 p.m., and Smith at 4:10 p.m.
McMurtry says he “never saw someone perform so confidently. She seemed to own the place.”
The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival’s website has a detailed write-up about Smith’s performance that day. According to that write-up, she exhibited “her trademark messianic intensity,” exhorting the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd “to stand up for its rights and honor its own creativity. Lenny Kaye’s mercurial guitar playing provided a rich, emotional foil to her impassioned vocals.
“The first lady of punk, if you will, lives in the nether-region where songwriters, poets, mystics and your crazy old aunt mix. She’s got more than a pinch of ’60s-era idealism, but she’s also still the devil-may-care punk chick, and the massive crowd assembled to see her was ready to go wherever she led.”
Smith reportedly began the show with “Dancing Barefoot,” and “a fever seemed to come over people as they responded to her,” according to the website. She played an “amazing version of ‘Ghost Dance’ from her 1979 album Easter,” and “a venomous cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Play with Fire.’”
That write-up goes on to mention that, when Smith spit on the stage, two girls in their mid-20s swooned. Smith’s last number was a cover version of Them’s “Gloria.”
The audience, the website says, “joined in on the opening line: ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.’ Smith cracked, ‘I think they were Bill Graham’s.’ As the show drew to a close, she shouted more advice: ‘Live your life. Be happy. Work hard. Love one another.’ The crowd kept screaming for her, even as the recorded music came on.”
Besides that festival performance from Smith, McMurtry recalls two memorable concerts in Richmond, VA, during his youth. His mother, a professor at the University of Richmond, split from McMurtry’s father, novelist Larry McMurtry, soon after James was born in 1962.
When James was seven, his mother and stepfather took him to the Richmond Coliseum for a concert by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, the Carter Family, and the Statler Brothers. McMurtry says he remembers Cash playing “A Boy Named Sue,” and the show made an impression on him.
Another show in Richmond on May 20, 1973, put him on his career path. McMurtry, a fan of Kris Kristofferson, watched Kristofferson perform with Rita Coolidge at The Mosque, an ornate theater that opened in 1927 and is now called the Altria Theater.
“The band seemed to be having such a good time,” McMurtry recalls. “They were having such a blast. I think that was why I wanted to become a musician.”