James McMurtry: Unplugged and Godless at Taos Music on the Mesa Festival 2017
James McMurtry began his Taos set singing, “Don’t be yelling at me when I’m cleaning my gun,” playing solo on acoustic 6- and 12-string guitars. He got our attention and instantly took command of the outdoor Amphitheater Stage at Taos Music on the Mesa Festival Sunday afternoon as his audience sang and danced along to a fiery 90-minute set plus encores. McMurtry peppered his performance with deft guitar runs and wry asides about the music biz and varying belief (or disbelief) systems and about how his 81-year-old dad, author Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) achieved formal excommunication from the Methodist church and raised James as an atheist. “And I have found no reason to rebel against that teaching,” quipped James.
As he moved through sharply-etched story-songs filled with memorable hooks, descriptive details and ironic observations, McMurtry and his audience warmed up to each other under the high desert Taos sun, and many in the crowd could be seen mouthing all the lyrics as they shuffled and jounced along with McMurtry’s rhythms.
Then he came to his rowdy hit, “Choctaw Bingo”, about a gun-toting, sister-twisting family reunion in Oklahoma at the home of one tough old uncle who runs a meth business but had to leave Texas and “won’t say why”. The audience naturally burst into whoops of joy and started to full-tilt boogie as James dramatically introduced the nastier “good parts” of this most infectious tongue-in-cheek party song. A genuine smile seemed to creep up on James and he surely did seem, with his audience to be “having us a time.”
While he did not perform any of his several overtly political songs, like “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” McMurtry did serve up several socially-astute observations of Americans surviving hard times and his swaying waltz-song about life on “Long Island Sound” seemed to take on an anthemic quality as many in the crowd sang and swayed along.
While McMurtry’s searing set may have been the high point of Sunday, and perhaps of the entire wonderful 3-day 2017 Music on the Mesa Festival for many of us grizzled veterans of recent history and of “rock and roll as we all knew it” (in McMurtry’s words), the final day of MOM 2017 had many other highlights, and truly the festival fun did not end until long, long after the high desert sun had magnificently set. Sunday opened with stunning Chris Arellano’s bluesy-Norteno set and closed with the funky-bluegrass psychedelia dancing party of Liver Down the River, surely one of the most gleeful endings any festival has ever had! In between, besides James McMurphy’s set, were show- stopping performances by Western Centuries, Alice Wallace, Wayne the Train Hancock, The Harmaleighs, The Mardi-Gras flavored California Honeydrops and extraordinary memory-searing jazzy bluegrass jams by both Railroad Earth and the Cheese Dusters (featuring members of String Cheese Incident and Infamous Stringdusters plus John Cowan of New Grass Revival).
All involved in producing, hosting, organizing and facilitating the Third Annual Music on the Mesa Festival—including but not limited to Matt Madison, Stephen Pyler, Grady Jaramillo, Susan Dilger, Dan Irion, Clint Huling, Pete Botting and Liza Barrett—deserve to take a most well deserved bow! And we look forward with relish to MOM 2018!