After an unusually fertile January—that saw the first local appearance by the Residents; Sonic Youth's first visit to Tucson in decades; and a victory lap for Girls, who, in my opinion, released the best album of 2009—February gets off to a rather slow start regarding big-name shows.
It won't last long. Spring is on its way, and as we all know, that's prime touring season for the multitude of acts that are about to release new albums, or have recently done so.
But there is no shortage of smaller shows with a lot of potential this week. And, hey, there are always those Super Bowl parties to tide you over, too.
Three promising shows this week are headlined by, well, dudes: two veteran folkies and an indie-rocker who is performing under his own name for the first time.
Though James McMurtry has been releasing albums (and getting excellent reviews) since 1989, it took a live album, the breakout Live in Aught-Three (Compadre, 2004), for the public's interest to catch up. After another pair of critically lauded albums—2005's Childish Things (Compadre) and 2008's Just Us Kids (Lightning Rod)—McMurtry last year released another live album, the CD/DVD combo Live in Europe (Lightning Rod). Perhaps the oddest thing about the package is its length: The CD and DVD each run only about 40 minutes, though, to be fair, only two songs from each disc overlap.
The genre term "Americana" was invented to describe guys like McMurtry: He's a songwriter's songwriter, wordy and literate (his father is novelist Larry McMurtry, who wrote The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment), and his music encompasses elements of folk, blues, country and rock.
But McMurtry's music might be standard Texas/heartland country-rock fare were it not for his lyrics, which are what set him apart from similar aspirants. For proof, look no further than his "We Can't Make It Here," which originally appeared on Childish Things, and is present here on the DVD. It is, first and foremost, a protest song, the likes of which largely went out of favor once the 21st century rolled around. And for good reason: In most people's hands, a song like it would end up clumsy and heavy-handed. But McMurtry can write circles around most people.
"We Can't Make It Here" rambles like a Dylan song used to ramble: It's seven-plus minutes and, by my count, contains 11 verses that count off a litany of American societal ills: the homeless Vietnam vet and how things haven't much changed for our current servicemen; the loss of goods-manufacturing in the U.S. economy; the disparity of pay between CEOs and the workers who toil under them; the lack of options for high school students; and on and on. His conclusion to each is the title line, "We can't make it here anymore"—something must be done, and fast—before he launches his band into a glorious three-chord dirge. Both Grant Alden, co-founder of No Depression, and respected music industry pundit Bob Lefsetz, of The Lefsetz Letter, named "We Can't Make It Here" the song of the decade, and it illustrates what McMurtry does best: He points out injustices against everyday people, just like any good protest singer.
James McMurtry performs at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Tuesday, Feb. 9. Doors open at 7 p.m. Advance tickets are $13; they'll be $15 on the day of the show. For further details, call 622-8848.
In many ways, Fred Eaglesmith is like a Canadian James McMurtry: Eaglesmith writes story-songs focusing on the travails of the common man living in the heartland. His early work is, in fact, reminiscent of the Texas songwriter tradition from which McMurtry springs, even in its instrumentation. But somewhere along the way, Eaglesmith got a bit more sonically interesting than that.
I liken it to what happened when Los Lobos released Kiko: People started thinking about them as something other than "just another band from East L.A." Similarly, Eaglesmith has veered into sonically darker territory than the usual country-folk of the Texas songwriter tradition (though there's still plenty of that, too). Yes, there are flourishes of bluegrass and Bakersfield, but there is also the occasional programmed beat, some heavily reverbed guitar, clattery percussion and Eaglesmith's sensitive-but-gruff voice, which is almost always placed front and center in the mix and occasionally recalls that of Bruce Springsteen. With any luck, Eaglesmith will release a breakthrough album similar to that of McMurtry's Live in Aught-Three; he deserves better than a rabid cult following.
The Fred Eaglesmith Band performs at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 6, at the ZUZI! Theater in the Historic YMCA, 738 N. Fifth Ave. Advance tickets are available for $20 at Antigone Books, all Bookmans locations, The Folk Shop, online at rhythmandroots.org and by calling (800) 594-8499. They'll be $23 at the door. For more information, call 319-9966.
About a year ago, it was reported that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, whose self-released 2005 debut album made them darlings of the blogosphere and helped usher in the current DIY model, were taking a break. (Their 2007 follow-up, Some Loud Thunder, didn't fare quite as well, it would seem.) While the future of that band remains in question, that hasn't stopped frontman Alec Ounsworth from working on other projects. Last year, he released two new albums: Skin and Bones (self-released), credited to Flashy Python, featured Ounsworth backed by members of Dr. Dog, The Walkmen and Man Man; and the higher-profile Mo Beauty, released in October by ANTI- Records, which he's currently touring to support.
For the latter, Ounsworth was approached by session musician, producer and Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin, who told Ounsworth that he wanted to make a record with him. Ounsworth agreed, seeing it as a way to work with new people while clearing out a cache of songs he had sitting around collecting dust. So the pair headed down to New Orleans, where Berlin teamed him up with a crack band of Crescent City ringers, including bassist George Porter Jr. of The Meters, and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore.
But those expecting Mo Beauty to be Ounsworth's "New Orleans album" were largely disappointed. Yes, there's more of a backbeat on many of these songs than on most of the tunes on Clap Your Hands' albums, and a trio of trombonists appears on three cuts, but due in no small part to the presence of Ounsworth's trademark quaver of a voice, Mo Beauty wouldn't have much trouble passing as CYHSY's experimental third album.
Alec Ounsworth performs an all-ages show at Solar Culture Gallery, 31 E. Toole Ave., on Tuesday, Feb. 9. Tucson's Golden Boots open at 9 p.m., and admission is a 10-spot. Call 884-0874 for more details.
Fresh off a tour of Europe, where she was backed by an all-star band of Tucsonans—Sergio Mendoza, Brian Lopez and Geoff Hidalgo (the same gents who will back her up this week)—as well as a stint in New Zealand, Tucson-based French chanteuse Marianne Dissard performs songs from her acclaimed 2009 album, L'Entredeux (self-released), at a homecoming show at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Saturday, Feb. 6. Doors open at 7 p.m., and Marco Rosano and DJ The French Tourist will appear as special guests. $5; 622-8848.
Elsewhere: Gem and Jam at the Rialto Theatre on Friday, Feb. 5, and Saturday, Feb. 6; The Swim, The Heligoats and Horae at Plush next Thursday, Feb. 11; Ordo Sakhna at Solar Culture Gallery next Thursday, Feb. 11; Fictionist at The HangArt on Wednesday, Feb. 10; Lenguas Largas and Hank Topless at the Red Room at Grill next Thursday, Feb. 11; Nile and five other bands at The Rock on Friday, Feb. 5; Winter Rock 'n' Reggae Party featuring the Triple Double Band, The Runaway Five, The Grand Royals and San Lunes at Club Congress on Wednesday, Feb. 10; DevilDriver, Suffocation, Goat Whore and two others at The Rock next Thursday, Feb. 11; Spirit Familia and Latino Solido at Club Congress on Friday, Feb. 5; Molehill Orkestrah and Calle Debauche at Plush on Friday, Feb. 5; the Michael P. Big Band and The Wyatts at The Hut on Saturday, Feb. 6; The Jons, Brian Lopez and Salvador Duran at Plush on Saturday, Feb. 6; John Russo at Hot Topic in the Tucson Mall on Wednesday, Feb. 10; Robert the Devil and TaxiNab Hooligans at the Red Room at Grill on Friday, Feb. 5.