With his battered fedora, sad eyes and hair like a rumpled bar-nap, James McMurtry could have stepped right out of one of his songs and onto the Troubadour stage Tuesday night. His two-hour set focused on his fine new album, “Just Us Kids” (Lightning Rod Records), where his economically told first-person narratives, such as “Hurricane Party” (which is set at a bar populated by Dylanesque characters but ends up as a story of inconsolable loneliness) and the hauntingly sad “Ruby and Carlos” (in which former lovers sleep alone but miss each other’s calls) keep company with bitter indictments of the government that has so cruelly let such folks down.
In “God Bless America (Pat Macdonald Must Die),” government officials shrug off the Iraq political wasp’s nest by saying, “Every day’s the end of days for some,” while in “Ruins of the Earth,” they survey the mess they’ve made and piously declare, “We shall not steal we shall not kill/Dancing in the ruins of our own free will.”
McMurtry sings these songs in a deep rumble that sounds like a cross between Lou Reed and a Texas Ranger — vulnerable and empathic, but not the voice of someone you’d want to mess with.
For almost two decades, McMurtry (son of novelist-screenwriter Larry McMurtry) has quietly established himself as one of our finest songwriters, a chronicler of a last-exit America with long horizons and longer odds solidly in the line of Austin, Texas-based musicians that includes Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Joe Ely.
He’s backed by a muscular rhythm section whose members call themselves the Heartless Bastards; they play with the kind of laconic seamlessness that comes with a longtime weekly residency (they have a regular Wednesday-night gig at Austin’s Continental Club), while McMurtry’s guitar playing has a thorny, barbed-wire electricity reminiscent of Richard Thompson.
They’re a perfectly tuned unit but were able to accommodate the solos of guests Tim Holt and Dave Alvin, who turned New Riders of the Purple Sage’s bathetic “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” into a tough bit of country rock, ending the evening on a noisily shambolic note.
Dedringers, the Austin quartet that opened the show, are too young to sound as grizzled as they do. They amiably bashed their way through a set of songs about drugs, debauchery and youthful ennui, set to scruffy, Rolling Stones-inflected country rock.