Songwriter James McMurtry's singing voice often sounds just as if he's speaking, giving his songs a conversational tone. At Iota on Sunday night, he scarcely moved his mouth when he sang, and even the tender love ballad "Melinda" was delivered with a detached drawl. That his songs are powerfully expressive without many vocal inflections is a testament to the power of McMurtry's words -- storytelling talent that runs in his family. (His father is the novelist Larry McMurtry.)
Some of James McMurtry's songs, such as "No More Buffalo," harked back to the Wild West captured in many of his father's novels. But much of his set was spent describing interpersonal relationships, with a flair for the uncomfortable -- from the superficiality of family holiday get-togethers ("Holiday") to an awkward romantic pursuit ("Red Dress"). McMurtry also had a knack for the devastating, touching on a drunken car crash ("Rachel's Song") and cooking crystal meth ("Choctaw Bingo"). His sociopolitical commentary culminated in the powerful "We Can't Make It Here," with a rolling guitar line set against McMurtry's rhythmic spoken word, which covered subjects ranging from the poor treatment of veterans to the perils of minimum wage.
The capacity crowd seemed to know every lyric and danced vigorously to every song, and McMurtry even paused during one tune to encourage their enthusiasm. Although McMurtry played a few solo acoustic numbers, his sound grew bigger and fuller over the course of his two-hour set. His three-piece band was joined by an additional guitarist midway through the evening, which concluded with a rollicking full-band version of Jon Dee Graham's "Laredo."
-- Catherine P. Lewis