Monday night, Americana Highways had the luck of attending the hotly anticipated J.M.² tour: James McMurtry and John Moreland, at the Birchmere, in Alexandria, VA. From the moment the tour was announced it was the talk of the Americana music social media chat and fan groups circuit, so it was no surprise the tables were full and the excitement was palpable, even on a Monday night. Although, the merch table was sparse and neat with 3 cds available/artist, and we think the band would’ve made out like bandits selling more talismen.
The two acts are perfectly sympatico. McMurtry is a seasoned, crafted storyteller whose lyrics adeptly strike the balance between words and innuendo, with a band that exhibits the easy style and worn instruments belying decades of honing the craft. Moreland aims straight for the gut, with emotional honestly that has an uncanny ability to strike directly at the heart of the matter with John Calvin Abney a bit of a virtuoso, in accompaniment on guitar.
Moreland came on like gangbusters with his barndancer, “Salisaw Blue” and the crowd was up on its feet. During the acoustic duo featuring Moreland and Abney, “Oh Julia,” fans called out affectionately to John Calvin, and Moreland offered a rare commentary: “Hey John, you’ve got fans.” John Calvin Abney has a solo album coming out in May.
There was a moving “I Need You to Tell Me Who I Am,” “Cherokee,” and then the emotionally raw “Old Wounds” that saw more than one fan tearing up: “if we don’t bleed it don’t feel like a song.” Moreland may wish to distance himself from the “sad songwriter” label, but his fans love him for this level of expressive honesty. He presented “Lies I Chose to Believe” to hushed room of rapt faces. And then there was “Photograph and “American Flags in Black in White, and Moreland closed out the set with Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me,” as we all still mourn for the Southern hero.
James McMurtry came out with his PRS Swamp Ash special and black fedora hat, snapping the room to attention with “Bayou Tortous.” He proceeded to make the crowd laugh and wince in turn with songs like “Red Dress” (“I’m drunk but you’re ugly”), “What’s the Matter Now?” and “It’s Just Us Kids, which starts out an innocent tale of glory days and evolves into a show of life’s passing and mortality. Drummer Jeff Botta stayed in the groove zone all night, sometimes using a shaker and drumming one-handed. Bassist “Cornbread” received enthusiasm from the crowd for his work with the Roadstar II, with some fans also losing their inhibitions and shouting out requests toward the end of the night.
McMurtry addressed the audience joking that the next song was supposed to have been a radio hit from his album “Complicated Game.” “We’re gonna play all the “”supposed to” hits tonight, ” then rocked the room with “How’m I Supposed to Find You,” with guitarist Tim Holt rocking everybody’s world on his black Gibson.
Holt switched to accordion for “Copper Canteen,” then “You Got to Me,” and “Choctaw Bingo,” at which point a hula hoop dancer graced the stage. McMurtry said “If I paid too much attention to reality I’d never get a song written.” “Childish Things” again was a fan favorite, and McMurtry recounted: “Max Crawford once told me “a good ol’ boy can become an intellectual but an intellectual cannot become a good ol’ boy. “ Super hit “Levilland” followed; McMurtry had switched to his white & teal Jerry Jones baritone. He closed the night with an acoustic “No More Buffalo,” and then the acoustic encore: “Lights of Cheyenne.”
When the night was over it was well past retiring time on a Monday night but nobody had noticed; fans lingered in the lobby basking in the glow of the celebration the J.M.² tour delivered.