The Dublin venue Whelan’s, hosted two distinct examples of how broad roots music can be. On his Irish debut the history making Watson played what was the smallest gig he has appeared at since he started his career. He made history by being the first independent artist to hit the number one spot on the Billboard Country charts. The venue, he observed with amusement, was smaller than his kitchen. However, despite suffering from a sore throat he delivered a set that reflected his fast-paced energised country music.
He was accompanied by his band, that included electric guitar, bass, drums and fiddle, as well as Watson’s acoustic guitar. This was an upfront, good-time, close quarters concert with Watson interacting closely with the sold-out venue. The set was centred around his most recent album (the chart topping) The Underdog. He commented that he had made it to that spot because he was blessed with the best fans. That showed clearly in the way they responded to Watson and he to them. He took every opportunity to interact with them by holding a pose for the inevitable selfies.
Played live, the songs take on a different energy that rarely lets up other than when he played a song that came from the heart about a mamber of his family such as the song he dedicated to his father - a disabled Vietnam vet and a song for his daughter, who died young; how the words of the mother of rodeo rider Lane Frost had helped to connect him with his faith and deal with the grief. These moments were poignant spaces in the otherwise overtly up and positive music.
Watson was having a small radio mic problem at one point and got his band to show off their chops which included his bassist Jordan McBride playing and singing a funky grooved number while his guitarist Jason Lerma showed off some high-speed playing. There was a brief drum solo from Brian Ferguson before Damian Green the fiddle player did his piece including bringing up a member of the audience to hold his bow in place while he played the fiddle against it. This showmanship got a proactive response while allowing Watson some moments of vocal reprieve from the effects of singing with a sore throat. It also showed that these guys have played a huge number of shows together that has made them an effective and tight live band. On his albums, Watson uses a set of studio players and a wider range of instruments such as pedal steel to enhance the recorded textures.
That underscores what Watson told us; that his music is a family business and that he is the man taking care of business. He told us about the various requests from the family in recent times amd on overseas trips. How his Mum had asked for some dirt from Ireland, where part of her family had come from. He held up a small jar of soil that he had received. He then jokingly told us then that, in contrast, his daughter wanted a card. When asking her what kind of card she wanted, she had replied "one like mommy use in the stores." Another of her requests was for Santa Claus to bring her a Taylor Swift guitar and for daddy to teach her some of her songs. His sons though were listening to more the good stuff he noted.
Merle Haggard’s Silver Wings was request by an audience member and duly played with feeling and a dedication the man. Watson promised to be back in Ireland soon and as his latest album Vaquero is released soon; that may happen. He is the sort of act that the C2C festival should embrace and his performance would undoubtedly be a hit there as much as it was here.
By way of complete contrast James McMurtry played the main venue in Whelan’s the following night to an equally enthusiastic audience but in a wholly different manner. McMurtry was accompanied by regular drummer Daren Hess, accordion and guitar player Tim Holt (who also handled the sound) and bassist Cornbread. They have a relaxed demeanour onstage as they work through songs from McMurtry’s extensive back catalogue. He commented at one point that since the number he was about to play had been written; a whole new generation had been born and grown up to adulthood. However, that doesn’t detract from their inherent quality. He closed the show with the title song of his 1989, John Mellencamp produced debut, Too Long In The Wasteland.
The characters in McMurtry songs and the situations they may face tend to be somewhat timeless and therefore as relevant today as ever. And though there is nothing overtly political in either the song choices or introductions, the nature of the stories are inherently related to such manipulations. The music spoke for the everyday people. The rhythm section found it’s groove and McMurtry and Holt’s guitars played off each other well. McMurtry played acoustic, electric and electric dobro while Holt held his own on his black Gibson Les Paul. It was often loud and loose. There were extended and eventful versions of Choctaw Bingo and Red Dress - though, in truth, few of the songs were short in a close to two-hour set. Following which, after a call for “more” McMurtry came onstage to give us a song solo on his acoustic guitar, Lights of Cheyenne. This allowed one to focus on the strength and quality of his lyric writing that would sometimes get lost in the band’s playing. There was no written set list so the band followed McMurtry’s lead which after the years they have played together seems a subconscious thing.
There is no overt stage craft or audience interaction in the performance other than a few comments such as the fact that he told us how some of their significant others though they were "on vacation" when they toured in Europe. He had, he said, addressed that in song but that hadn’t gone down too well and had gotten them in big trouble with various women. Being just the right amount of drunk and pissed off was, he noted, a place you could write a song from if you did it in time. Other than that, he was feeling "good to be back." McMurtry relishes the live stage, more than the studio, and this is pretty obvious in the ease and effusiveness with which he delivers his songs. He may have been too long in the wasteland but it is too long since he was last here, something that he will hopefully remedy when he tours his next album.
Review by Stephen Rapid Photography by Kaethe Burt-O'Dea