Word slinger

He didn’t say much. Hell, for about a third of the show, James McMurtry didn’t say anything at all. He just played and tuned, tuned and played.

Talk, after all, is cheap. And the throng of roughly 375 didn’t crowd the Orange Peel stage seeking civilities, but to soak in the Texas songsmith’s raucous tales of disaffection, squandered potential and dead-end-road dreams.

And mostly, they came for the WNCW-FM staple “Choctaw Bingo,” possibly the great dysfunctional-family tune of all time (sorry, Robert Earl), from McMurtry’s final Sugar Hill Records release, last year’s boisterous Saint Mary of the Woods.

“I’m gonna do you a song about the north Texas/southern Oklahoma crystal-meth industry,” McMurtry announced, looking frighteningly like a ratty Ted Nugent, his dark locks spilling from beneath a camouflage hunting cap. And from that first noisy guitar note, the faithful were shouting along what they knew of McMurtry’s epic cavalcade of riotous words.

Overall, the show mostly favored the Texan’s Stones ‘n’ roll side, spurring his typical concert failure: McMurtry loads down most cuts with extended guitar riffing, a blistering monotony of dirty notes smearing remarkable songs into unfortunate sameness.

And his concerts typically are, this one was damn loud (one patron left in an huff, fingers still plugging her ears, as they had for several songs). But for once, the venue was up to the volume.

McMurtry concerts often end up a muddy sonic mess. In clubs with modest PA systems, floors and walls tend to swallow whole his rock-trio sound (McMurtry’s own six-string squall, Ronnie Johnson’s thick bass, Darren Hess’ burly drumming). The result can be teeth-grating reverberation.

But because Peel sonics were spot-on, McMurtry extended his live-recording efforts begun recently in Salt Lake City and Nashville. (A new album on Houston-based Compadre Records is tentatively set for fall.)

The night’s highlight actually came during a lull in the volume, when a solo McMurtry picked up an acoustic guitar.

“Out on the horizon, the broken stars fall,” the Laconic One sang midway into “The Lights of Cheyenne,” a gorgeous slice of shattered-life Americana originally planned for Saint Mary, but still unrecorded. The song ranks among McMurtry’s best.

The trio — unofficially dubbed The Heartless Bastards — finally threw in the towel following a post-2 a.m. encore. The house lights came up, and most of the rest of the crowd filtered out into the early morning.

And then the remaining 50-odd faithful got a rare treat: The band wandered back onstage, launching into “Rex’s Blues” by the late, beautiful Townes Van Zandt.

“There ain’t no dark till something shines,” McMurtry sang, the house lights up, the room bright.

“It’s like a high-school dance in here,” remarked Lance Wille, local musician and Peel employee.

And at song’s end, this aging prom crowd was grinning like the canary that just ate the cat.

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