James McMurtry

Dysfunction and unhappiness dominate James McMurtry's tunes. But for most of his 21/2 hours onstage Saturday at Iota, McMurtry showed how uplifting somebody else's tales of woe can be.

The 42-year-old son of Texas novelist Larry McMurtry suffers from an early onset of curmudgeonhood. The singer seethed about class in "Lobo Town," which found him stuck in a place where the folks care about "who you come from, not who you are." In "Lights of Cheyenne," the nonworking stiffs get excited only when they hear "the gravel pits are hiring after the first." He grew up in Leesburg, and the many local references (Loudoun County schools, Point of Rocks and the Cellar Door among them) dropped into his set proved he knows the area. But his art is more closely identified with his father's home state. Other than a tirade about President Bush's pronunciation of "nuclear," which the singer claims changed to a mispronunciation only after Bush left Texas for Washington, McMurtry let his music reveal his politics. The leanings of the red states peeved him in "Out Here in the Middle," where McMurtry groused about living in a place "where the center's to the right."

Backed by drummer Darren Hess and bassist Ronnie Johnson, McMurtry offered a lot of laughs -- "Everybody repeat after me," he instructed the sellout crowd, then took a huge swig from his beer bottle -- but he never smiled. In fact, like Lucinda Williams, McMurtry seems so dissatisfied with the status quo that he can't even bother with standard verse-chorus-verse song structures.

No such rules are followed on the raucous and rambling "Choctaw Bingo," which mulls the wayward lives at a family reunion; turns out Uncle Slaton switched his bootlegging operation from moonshine to speed. Before launching into a nearly 10-minute fuzzy guitar jam that sounded at times like a bumpkin rendition of the Beatles' "Come Together," McMurtry kicked off his loafers and spent the rest of the night in socks. That was just one more indication that McMurtry doesn't like being in his own shoes.

-- Dave McKenna

John Wesley Harding

John Wesley Harding's All Male Threesome introduced themselves to the Iota audience Friday with a parody of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band": "It was two months ago today / We decided to go out and play . . ." Despite their observation "You're such a lovely audience / We wish you were alive right now," they had no problem, over the next three hours, convincing the lively crowd that they were a fab three indeed.

On this, the penultimate show of the group's tour, Harding gave over ample solo time to his musical partners and, it seemed, best buddies. The affable Dag Juhlin, best known as the guitarist for Poi Dog Pondering, offered up punchy, hooky pop fare, including "Little Black Glasses," a ballad of '70s nostalgia with a protagonist so meek he never even approaches the girl of his dreams. Scott McCaughey, of the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5, outdid himself by replicating a duet with Jeff Tweedy on "The Town That Lost Its Groove Supply" -- including running back and forth between two mikes to sing both parts. He also spat his way through the punky protest song "Your Truth, Our Lies," whose coda, "When will it end?," was so infectious that the threesome was still quoting it an hour later.

Juhlin and McCaughey sometimes seemed like the good and bad angels perched on the shoulders of the complex Harding, whose songs showed his astonishing range. A richly detailed version of the British ballad "Little Musgrave" was followed by a satirical song about Live Aid. "Ace in the Spider Hole" predicted Osama's capture: "He'll be ready for dissection /Just in time for the election." After the applause for the catchy pop song "Negative Love," from his latest album, "Adam's Apple," he declared: "Don't patronize me. I didn't drive 350 miles to get patronized. I drove it to get drunk."

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Charlie Waller, Country Gentlemen

The audience didn't let out a collective sigh when bluegrass legend Charlie Waller began singing Friday night at the Birchmere, yet you could sense its delight as his unmistakable voice, still warmly resonant after all these years, began to stir decades of memories.

Making a rare visit to the club, the Texas-born singer-guitarist performed with the latest edition of the nearly 50-year-old Country Gentlemen. The still-versatile string band now features his son Randy on guitar and occasional vocals. Requests for early hits, not surprisingly, were heard throughout the show, and Waller happily obliged by reviving "Matterhorn," "Legend of the Rebel Soldier" and "Fox on the Run" with a mixture of spirit and soul. He also dedicated another favorite, "Bringing Mary Home," to his late friend and former band mate John Duffey.

Waller wanted to ramble and reminisce, too. His tributes to some of his early heroes (Gene Autry, Merle Travis and especially Hank Snow) were heartfelt and evocative; his recollections of seeing Elvis Presley perform on the Louisiana Hayride a half-century ago prefaced a version of "Crying in the Chapel" that took full advantage of his group's gospel-tailored harmonies. Now and then, when a lyric briefly eluded him, the band closed ranks and raised its voices, but otherwise Waller never hit a note or turned a phrase that didn't ring true.

The show opened with a lively, engaging and harmonious set by the Good Deale Bluegrass Band, colorfully enhanced by guest Mike Auldridge on dobro.

-- Mike Joyce

Freddy Cole

The more things change in the pop world, the more refreshing veteran singer and pianist Freddy Cole sounds. Indeed, had the ghost of older sibling Nat dropped by Blues Alley on Saturday night, he surely would have felt right at home listening to his brother's brand of unruffled swing and mellow balladry. Heck, he probably would have wanted to sit in with the band.

Cole promised an evening of "toe-tapping and listening pleasure," and his quartet delivered that and more. His voice, a gentle baritone with a slightly raspy edge, instantly cast a romantic spell, charging a series of vintage (or vintage-sounding) songs with a steady current of warmth and charm. Pop classics by Cole Porter and Michel Legrand were punctuated by lesser-known but still well-crafted tunes -- some reflective, others amusing. The small combo arrangements, whether slow or up-tempo, unfurled with scarcely a wrinkle.

The band's finesse was particularly striking when Cole was closely collaborating with guitarist Jerry Byrd, who neatly harmonized the pianist's casually swinging excursions and vibrant chordal jabs. Byrd's improvisations were also a treat to hear, brimming with melodic variations, nimble-fingered flourishes and beautifully tapered resolutions.

Of course, Cole can't walk offstage without a nod to Nat. Toward the end of his performance, he saluted his famous sibling with a brief medley, affectionately bracketed by "Mona Lisa" and "Unforgettable." But then came "I'm Not My Brother, I'm Me," a funny but pointed reminder that family coattails extend only so far.

-- Mike Joyce

Pianist and singer Freddy Cole performed at Blues Alley on Saturday night.