James McMurtry/City Winery/April 2, 2017
In Fort Worth, Texas, novelist Larry McMurtry gave his seven-year-old son, James McMurtry, the boy’s first guitar. The boy’s mother taught him his first three chords; the rest he learned by ear or by watching other musicians. As a teenager in Leesburg, Virginia, he began writing and performing, a path that continued as a university student in Tucson, Arizona. After traveling to Alaska and playing a few gigs, he returned to Houston and then San Antonio, Texas, where he worked as a house painter, actor, bartender, and sometimes singer. In 1987 he was one of six winners in the Kerrville Folk Festival’s New Folk songwriter contest, launching his professional aspirations. His ninth and most recent studio album is 2015’s Complicated Game. McMurtry currently resides in Austin, Texas.
On this tour, James McMurtry performed solo rather than with a backing band. At City Winery tonight, this quieter approach accented his vocals, his guitar picking skills and especially his lyrics. Although many of his fans have touted him as a storyteller, his lyrics actually were more akin to still photographs, painting a person or a scene with little movement. Many were observations, some leaned towards commentary, but they were all poignant, lengthy and visual. When McMurtry turned to his acoustic guitar and ripped a speedy solo, the listener was simultaneously mesmerized by his picking and the images incurred by the previous lyrics. His deep, relaxed singing made the stories all that much more authentic.
The Pretenders/Terminal 5/April 3, 2017
Originally from Akron, Ohio, Chrissie Hynde wandered through the United States, France and the United Kingdom until 1973, when she settled in London, England, working for a music newspaper and a punk clothing store. After a few bands went nowhere, she began sorting out her own music briefly with drummer Gas Wilde of Hereford, England, and by 1978 had solidified a band comprised of three musicians from Hereford. Hynde named the band The Pretenders after The Platters song “The Great Pretender.” After the drug-related deaths of two band members in the early 1980s, the lineup changed frequently until The Pretenders went on hiatus in 1988. Hynde revived the brand name in 1990 using session musicians until she assembled a new lineup in 1993. The Pretenders became dormant again in 2012, and Hynde launched a solo career in 2014. The Pretenders’ 10th and most recent album, Alone, released on October 21, 2016, was essentially Hynde’s second solo album with session musicians. She then reconvened the most recent Pretenders lineup in 2016 to promote the album, with Hynde on vocals and guitar, James Walbourne on lead guitar, Eric Heywood on pedal steel, Nick Wilkinson on bass, and Martin Chambers returning on drums.
The Pretenders are on tour supporting Stevie Nicks, but found a night off to headline at Terminal 5 tonight. Perhaps because of the opening band slot, this Pretenders tour was a greatest hits package, with 13 of the 19 songs originating from the band’s peak period in the 1980s. At first tonight, Hynde sounded as if she had lost her signature vocals. It took about four songs before that distinctive voice made its way to the forefront and proved that it retained the same refinement of the past. Although born in the punk era, The Pretenders now sounded more like a classic rock band, with precise guitar chops and super-clean vocals gyrating around strong pop melodies. On softer songs like “I’ll Stand By You,” The Pretenders sounded more like a commercial power ballads band. Ricky Peterson replaced Heywood on keyboards tonight, and all that The Pretenders did, the band did slickly. For a finale, John McEnroe joined The Pretenders on lead guitar, and Hynde announced a lifting of the ban against photography at the concert. But why was there a ban in the first place?
John Mayer/Madison Square Garden/April 5, 2017
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and raised in nearby Fairfield, John Mayer became fascinated with the guitar after watching Michael J. Fox’s character play one in Back to the Future. When he turned 13, his father rented one for him, and Mayer started taking lessons from a local guitar-shop owner. After two years of practice, while still in high school, Mayer started performing live, both solo and in a band called Villanova Junction. At age 17, Mayer was hospitalized for a weekend with cardiac dysrhythmia and wrote his first lyrics the night he left the hospital. At age 20, he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where he played acoustic rock in local clubs. Moving between the worlds of pop, blues and, most recently, playing Grateful Dead songs with Dead & Company, Mayer won seven Grammy Awards and sold over 20 million albums. His seventh and most recent album, The Search for Everything, will be released on April 14, 2017. He currently lives in Bozeman, Montana.
John Mayer’s current live show is divided into full band, solo acoustic and trio “chapters,” yet features a loose set list. Headlining at Madison Square Garden tonight, Mayer’s show was retrospective while highlighting on his more recent work. In recent years, Mayer was sidelined at least twice by vocal issues requiring surgery, but he sang well, a slight rasp lending more depth to his bluesy delivery. He performed the hits, deep cuts, covers and mash-ups, showcasing his abilities both as singer-songwriter and blues guitarist. The staging likewise was intricately crafted, as segments were introduced on a screen and, for the acoustic set, the stage at Madison Square Garden visually became a Japanese garden, complete with a small bridge. Indeed, Mayer and company uniquely and successfully bridged the genres that satisfied both younger pop fans and their guitar-loving dads. By the end of the 21-song set, both facets would applaud Mayer’s credentials. Next up, Mayer will resume touring this summer as part of Dead & Company.
Son Volt/Bowery Ballroom/April 7, 2017
Jay Farrar learned to play the guitar as a 12-year-old in Belleville, Illinois, and in high school teamed with Jeff Tweedy to form a garage rock band called the Primitives. The lead singer quit to attend college, Farrar and Tweedy recruited drummer Mike Heidorn, and the trio began incorporating the country music influence of their youth along with some traditional folk sounds; they renamed the band Uncle Tupelo in 1987 and grew into a quintet. Relationships soured and Farrar quit in 1994 and reunited with Heidorn to form Son Volt, leaving the remaining Uncle Tupelo musicians to form Wilco. Son Volt recorded three albums, then went on hiatus in 1999. Farrar launched a solo career in 2001, then reformed the Son Volt brand in 2005 with new personnel. Son Volt presently consists of Farrar (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano), Chris Frame (guitar), Mark Spencer (keyboards, steel guitar, bass), and Jacob Edwards (drums). Son Volt released its eighth and most recent album, Notes of Blue, on February 17, 2017. The band in based out of St. Louis, Missouri.
While Wilco continually expands its soundscape, Son Volt took the opposite approach at the Bowery Ballroom tonight, holding fast to the alt-country genre it helped to invent, adding only a dash of blues. Onstage, Farrar exhibited virtually no personality, rarely speaking or otherwise acknowledging the audience or his band mates and nearly always singing with his eyes shut tightly. He cranked out some impressive guitar solos and sang with a rugged, weathered, and yet durable voice that at its most grooving points sounded like it fell somewhere between Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neil Young and possibly Creedence Clearwater Revival. Son Volt’s identity was found in the music, however, with Son Volt rocking an unmistakable country twang and a blues swing, all hinged on an Americana-roots skeleton. The set emphasized the new album, but as the band dug deep into its repertoire, it wound up performing most of its debut album as well. The band cranked out 26 songs in rapid fashion, even coming back out for encores of three Uncle Tupelo songs and a cover of a Rolling Stones song.