Only thing wrong with James McMurtry’s packed show last Wednesday (Feb. 24) at The Hangar? Cartoonist/Texas music fan John Caldwell wasn’t there.
John died the previous Sunday, sadly reducing our supply of jokes and fun in general.
He was a hoot and a holler, flexing his funny bone in Mad Magazine, the New Yorker and many other mags, in a syndicated column, and in ads and even T-shirts. He was always superbly entertaining company. In a lunch meeting for an ad campaign that won an award, John let go a thunderous sneeze. Every suit in the place turned in alarm as he said he was fighting a cold and joked, “It’s OK: I’m taking some nice heroin for it.”
At his house once when daughter Kristin turned on music upstairs, John yelled, “That’s the CLASH! Turn it UP!”
James McMurtry at The Hangar on River Street, Troy, NY–Feb. 24, 2016
Michael Eck (guitar, vocals) & Sten Isachsen (mandolin) opened–8:10 p.m.
“Frank is Burning” (Albany murder ballads project)
“Dead Man’s Shirt”“Sing Me Back Home” (Merle Haggard cover)
“You're A Mountain” (about his dad, sung for John Caldwell)
“Joe’s Song” (East of Eden project)
“Adam’s Song” (ditto)“In My Shoes”
James McMurty (solo, with 6- and 12-string guitars)–9:10 p.m.
“St. Mary of the Woods” (“St. Mary of the Woods” album, 2002)
“Red Dress” (“St. Mary of the Woods”)
“Copper Canteen” (“Complicated Game” album, 2015)
“You Got to Me” (“Complicated Game”)
“I Ain’t Got a Place” (“Complicated Game”)
“Choctaw Bingo” (“St. Mary of the Woods”)
“How’m I Gonna Find You Now” (“Complicated Game”)
“Long Island Sound” (“Complicated Game”)
“Levelland” (“Where’d You Hide the Body” album, 2008)
“Carlisle’s Haul” (“Complicated Game”)
“No More Buffalo” (“It Had to Happen” album, 1997)
“Childish Things” (“Childish Things” album, 2005)
“Down Across the Delaware” (“Where’d You Hide the Body”)
“We Can’t Make It Here” (“Childish Things”)
“Peter Pan” (“It Had to Happen”)
“Lights of Cheyenne” (“Live in Ought-Three” album, 2011)
At his wake, funny John stories spun out from friends and fans, including some Blotto guys. John drew a full-size cartoon of the boys playing, then they poked their heads through the paper and Marty Benjamin photographed them for the cover of their “Combo Akimbo” album.
I was proud that my author photos of John appear in two of his books, and that I once made him laugh so hard that he sprayed soda over the lunch table. When I admired his cartoon of a chef holding a crane crafted of pizza over an empty pan (the caption: “OREGANO — ancient Italian art of pizza folding”) he just gave it to me. He gave me a million laughs and a friendship I miss.
Sorry he missed McMurtry. It was a terrific show, like J.B. Scott’s back in the day, with almost too many people holding beers elbow to elbow, coats tied at our waists. Hats off to opener Michael Eck, whose funny shout-out mourned John’s absence from a show he’d have loved. I did.
McMurtry’s records barely suggest the in-person power of his guitar. Strong clear sound perfectly delivered his lyrics: miniature novels of telling detail and deep truth about underdog lives on the ragged edge where greed has shoved working folk. His “We Can’t Make it Here” hit hard as Bernie Sanders, or Jason Isbell.
Songs from last year’s “Complicated Game,” especially “Copper Canteen” and “Long Island Sound,” sounded as great as chestnuts “Choctaw Bingo” and “No More Buffalo.” A tremendous night out, in terrible weather: machine-gun rain, strobes of lighting and streets so flooded it felt like driving in a waterfall.
Across the bridge
Notes flooded the Massry Center at the College of Saint Rose on Saturday, the second night of the Bridge Jazz Festival shared with the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. (Check Dave Singer’s review on Sunday.) Local heroes the Arch Stanton Quartet opened with strong, funky post-bop, setting the table for Richmond, Virginia’s No BS! Brass Band, who earned the exclamation point with thrilling, fiery, micro-unified riffing and soaring solos.
From a traditional opener that detonated march time, they explored modern, in fact post-modern, territory — where Public Enemy met Tower of Power and took it to the bridge. With four trumpets, four trombones, a relentless tuba and deep-in-the-pocket drummer, they riffed and rapped with equal, sweaty spirit, earning a guest slot with headliners Ellis and Delfeayo Marsalis.
Pianist Ellis (81) seemed frailer than at Jazz Fest last May, until he started playing and more than held his own with trombonist son Delfeayo, drummer McClenty Hunter and bassist Eric Wheeler. Ellis turned Johnny Mandel’s “Emily” inside out before inviting the rhythm section in with a clear melody statement. He was elegant and eloquent in every note.
Delfeayo romped through “Sesame Street” and “The Flintstones” themes, quoting “When the Saints Go Marching In” — playing for laughs and for real.
He recruited seven of the No BS! horns on for “Lil Liza Jane,” to jam in a big-fun way. Delfeayo and the other horns invented section parts on the fly while their bros soloed out past the moon, then knocked it out like they’d practiced for months. Fist bumps all around as everybody left but Ellis and Delfeayo who gave us the perfect closer.
First playing muted, then open after his dad’s bluesy solo, Delfeayo asked: “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” Oh, yeah — and my pal John Caldwell, too.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]