'St.' James McMurtry holds Snowbasin revival

Tuesday , July 22, 2014 - 8:36 AM

By JAMES THALMAN
Standard-Examiner correspondent

SNOWBASIN -- Roots music legend James McMurtry doesn't look like what anyone would ever call a saint, but his Sunday afternoon show at Snowbasin was practically a religious experience for the crowd of nearly 1,500 congregated for the resort's popular Blues, Brews and BBQ concert series.

To say the largest crowd so far at the series felt the spirit would be an understatement. The half-circle of true believer fans who gathered in front of the stage were positively joyful, moving as one, raising their hands in unison as if testifying how good St. James, as some of his most devoted fans call him, has been to them.

Several people interviewed during and after the show used the word "spiritual" to describe the experience they were having.

"This is the best live show I've ever been to in my life," said Kaysville resident Austin Childs, who was hearing McMurtry for the first time and was converted on the spot after McMurtry finished the song that is always a hit in Utah, "Restless." The hymn is about Proust and heartbreak and he's trying to convince himself as he heads across the Utah sage that his woman is the type who gets restless in the spring but she's the type who'll "come back if I let her be."

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"There is truth and light in his music," Childs said. "He's as sweet as raspberry jam. (Childs should know; he said he just bottled 15 pints of freezer jam from berries grown in his back yard.) I've never heard anyone like him except maybe Neil Young. I feel almost redeemed."

Amen, said longtime fan Todd McCallister of Layton, who has seen McMurtry "so many times, I've lost count." McCallister, who sang every word of every song at the show, said, "He's just got lyrics that hit you right in the heart, and his guitar playing just kicks your butt. It's the most amazing combination. He's the real, real deal."

Maybe it was the humidity and the heat, but the crowd languished a little at first, but got up and got moving when the chords to McMurtry's favorite song on iTunes, "Choctaw Bingo" were struck. It is about as close as the "rocker at heart" gets to country music. It's an 11-minute ode to his Uncle Slayton and a quick climb up his big and somewhat twisted family tree. His tale includes "having a time" with his uncle's old BAR -- Browning Automatic Rifle -- and tracer bullets and a Desert Eagle "that's one big ol' pistol, 50 caliber, made by badass Hebrews" and doing the "twisted sister" with his two second-cousins.

The number of people singing along with that song probably equaled the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the organ -- all stops were pulled.

Another song that hit one of the biggest chords with the crowd was a recent song, "Just Us Kids," which ends with the refrain that many Baby Boomers at the show could identify with: "Just us kids hanging out today, watching our long hair turning gray/not so skinny, maybe not so free/not so many as we used to be."

"The guy has been the soundtrack of my life," said unabashed fan Jerry Spangler. "I can proudly say that I was one of the first people in Utah to find out about him, and he has been with me through the good and bad and always somehow made it all better. He's St. James to me, and I would happily start a church."

He has his father's eye for the human condition, but instead of novels like Larry, "he is a master of the short form," Spangler said, "which in my book is much harder."

The music is ’real’

Cathy Covington, who called herself a recent fully devoted convert to McMurtry, said his music boils down to a single word for her: "Real." He might lean a little too country for some and a little too hard rock for others, she said. "But I love him for that. You can't quite label him, but he is real real, and you can't deny his eye for detail in his lyrics."

"The folks in Utah always seem to like us," McMurtry told the Standard after the show. "We were pretty tired today, but the crowd gave us the kick we needed, and that curtain of mountains in front us was pretty inspiring, too."

The band had played Missoula, Mont., the night before and drove all day to get to the show at Snowbasin, which put them up for the night and provided fairly spectacular environs for one of the band's few days off Monday. They play in Boise on Tuesday.

McMurtry recorded most of his best live album, "Live in Aught Three" at the best live venue Salt Lake ever had, the old and now-shuttered Zephyr in Salt Lake. He dedicated the album to the place because it had what remains regarded by just about everybody as the best sound system in three states.

The Snowbasin sound

Peter Baker, director of dining and entertainment at the resort, is doing his best to get that best live sound designation for Snowbasin. Because the Blues, Brews and BBQ series was so successful last year -- this is the second year of the Sunday concerts -- he did what any enterprising young gig booking agent would do -- promise the bands that they have their own, loud-as-you-wanna-be sound system. It did the job Sunday, reproducing bassist Cornbread (Yes, that's his name), substantial bottom end of the music with enough thud to ruffle shirt collars and provided the perfect kick to drummer Brian Paul’s kit it was positively Three Bears -- it was just right.

"A great sound system is a great thing to promise a band, and I think the mix has been tight across the spectrum," Baker said, adding that if a venue gets known "as a place where the band has no worries about sound reproduction, the word gets around fast. That will be a draw for more McMurtry-level artists.

The series has been so successful because Baker used a trick of his trade -- give bands a Sunday afternoon to play and place to stay, they'll happily do both.

"And Sunday crowds are the happiest," he said, "and it gives us a chance to do a big public thing on a Sunday. Saturday nights are usually busy with private groups for weddings and company parties. This way, we get to just have a big party for everybody else."

Absolutely McMurtry will be invited back, Baker said. "I mean, look at this, he said, motioning toward the multitude. "I think they're having a pretty good time."

They'll likely have a better time next year. McMurtry has just signed up with label Complicated Game and is due to have a new collection out by the end of the year.

"We had a great time, too," Cornbread said after the show. "There's a truth and a reality to James' music. I think that's what people feel. It's not digital, it's warm tube amplifiers and nothing fake about it. That's what people come out for; that's what I come to play."

That's the Gospel According to James. Life is hard, beautiful, hard, amazing and hard. "You may not like all of his stuff," Spangler said, "but all of it is from the heart and honest and has about as much guile and pretense as a glass of water. "

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