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With Dave Alvin opening, it's headliner beware for James McMurtry

The Paradise, Boston, January 25, 2007

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Word from the box office was that Dave Alvin and James McMurtry went back and forth about three times before figuring that McMurtry would be the headliner. Under normal circumstances, that probably would not have been a bad idea, but given the strength of the opening act, well, maybe they should have switched places at least on this evening, and that is no knock at McMurtry.

Alvin is touring behind "West of the West," his tribute to California songwriters ranging from Jackson Browne to Brian Wilson. The album is strong, and so was Alvin's performance.

He tended to get bluesy in his delivery, straying away from the roots/country sounds he has worn in the past.

The general M.O. during his 70 minutes on stage was that Alvin and his backing band would get comfortably into the songs, set a good groove with Alvin playing taut guitar lines aided by his keyboardist Joe Terry (of The Skeletons fame), guitarist Chris Miller, bassist Gregory Boaz and drummer Bobby Lee Hicks (another Skeleton). They tended to let the songs stretch out, but with a purpose, not just filling time.

Alvin mixed up his set list with long-time favorites like "So Long Baby," "4th of July" (played way slowed down and more spare, but just as effective) and closing with "Marie Marie" and Jackson Browne's "Redneck Friend," "Out of Control" from "Ashmont" and Brian Wilson's "Surfer Girl," which didn't much sound like something from the Beach Boys main brain, interspersed.

Alvin was not one to sit on past laurels on this evening during his as usual very satisfying performance.

McMurtry obviously had the unenviable task of following up Alvin. McMurtry has a bunch of good songs, particularly the very fast paced "Choctaw Bingo" and "Can't Make It Here Anymore," a powerful one-two punch played about mid-set.

The latter particularly delves deep from the get-go, with McMurtry singing about a Vietnam War veteran holding a cardboard sign on the road "Flag on the wheelchair flapping in the breeze/One leg missing, both hands free/No one's paying much mind to him/The V.A. budget's stretched so thin/And there's more comin' home from the Mideast war/We can't make it here anymore." No, life isn't necessarily pretty, and McMurtry brings home the song with the requisite conviction.

But the problem is that McMurtry's songs tended not to ring quite as strong musically as Alvin's, though his lyrics paint vivid pictures. Nor does he have the sense of charisma that Alvin exudes. McMurtry generally cuts a low-key persona. He talks a bit, but not so much to the crowd, though he clearly enjoys putting his songs and viewpoints across.

On most nights, that would not have mattered at all because McMurtry's delivery and passion are clear.

But when Dave Alvin is opening, headliner beware.