Joe McMurrian Quartet
Live at the White Eagle:
Woodbrain Records

Joe McMurrian has assembled a band together for live performances that has succeeded in carving out a uniqueness pretty much unparalleled. Certainly anyone in his class could learn something from this quartet’s rare chemistry. It would be fair to assume that the likes of Ry Cooder, Neil Young and maybe even a bit envious of the ableness envy and applaud for this collection of live recordings. JMQ has played weekly at the White Eagle Saloon in Portland for some time now, and this cd compliments their tenure there well. Joe by himself is already one of the better one -man combo acoustic guitar/ singers in the Pacific NW. He is an excellent storyteller, and keeps his audiences interested with his great stylings of rhythm and slide. Backing him is David Lipkind on harmonica, Jason Honl on bass, and drummer Jimi Bott who enjoyed years of experience and success in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. It’s worthy to mention that Jimi now lives in Portland, and seems to prefer both fronting as well as accompanying many local musicians.

The tracks were recorded over a 2 month period and are meant to focus on their exponential growth as a band. This group has no problem spontaneously interpreting traditional numbers in their own unique way, as well as constant improvisation or reconstruction of their own songs.

This band performs synched and linked to each other like an iron steam engine. Their parts are indelibly bolted on tight and moving together like a well- oiled tractor puffing through the dirt on a hot summer day. All kinds of western (and N.W.) images are called to mind when they play: Tree trunks, old steel saws, sunbleached weather-worn picket fences. Hot shaded porches snagged with hair from the hound who sleeps there. Miles of train tracks littered with old rusty cans, cigarette butts and beer bottles. The 4 track close-miking accentuates all the tweaks and creaks, and woody scrapings, which lends to the overall antiquities experiences this kind of music invokes. Joe’s stories can take you right to his carefully designed destinations, like flash scenes from a good movie.

More than half are Joe’s own songs, while covers of Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and The Carter Family are given the band’s own special flavor. Mountain flavored mid -century delta blues, country honk, acoustic porch, and freight train rhythms are on the menu here. What’s interesting to note is that each player glaringly shines through the other musicians as if they are the featured soloist – but they never step on each others toes . This is because the call and response segmenting is tight and close together. These guys have to be intensely tuned into each other for this kind of reaction. Always connected to the slight but steady tempo accelerations are the reagent that makes them meld together so well.

On harmonica, David Lipkind is a constant puncuator, he’s got the kind of harp tone and delivery that even non-harp lovers can ride with. He settles into each song like a train magnetized to the tracks, Slow, steady, and strong. Most notably 8 minutes into “Preachin’ Son House” where his chaotically but controlled blowing morphs between sounding like a melting space- age squeeze box and a dog howling along with a screaming steam engine. Jason hunches down and works his bass lines with a complexity that is uncommon for this kind of music. Bott fits right in with about any kind of change-up they throw at him.

McMurrian himself is constant throughout, his acoustics are intricate, steely and wooden. His lyrics are well explained and sort of mesh, he accents the punch lines into the drum beats. Joe’s vocal style can call to mind Mark Knopfler, and his drawn out vibrato’s sometimes bring Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull to mind. The only small drawback to this CD is the sometimes lengthy quietus segments in the middle of some tracks, which could make it tempting to forward. However, these few areas are usually followed by extended jams well worth the wait.

You can catch JMQ at the Laurelthirst Public House once or twice a month. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them play this material some months ago and have never forgotten the experience.

© 2011 Buko Magazine

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