John Murry arrived back in London last week on the back of what was almost certainly the best year of his career so far. 2013 was an incredible year for John, on the back of a life full of struggles he emerged with a stunning record, and more importantly he emerged alive.
He has had a far from average life. Adopted by faded-aristocracy from the deep south, he’s the second cousin of William Faulkner, he didn’t follow the career path expected. No Ivy League education and a career in academia for John, he wanted to be a rock’n’roll singer! This idea was so shocking to his adopted parents they checked into rehab to put the fear of god into him, to say the plan back fired would be a startling understatement. As he himself puts it “they say you’re an addict, well you start behaving like one” and behave like one Murry did. Following the birth of his son, he developed a muscle disorder the subsequent operation led him to become addicted to pain killers, and later as a substitute heroin. He’s past that now he doesn’t take drugs, he doesn’t drink, but the hallmarks of his upbringing and addiction permeate every part of his music. Though it is not simply a record about heroin, misery and self-destruction, on The Graceless Age he created a tale about the darkness, and how you get out of it. It’s not some happy clappy post-addiction manifesto on the joys of life but there’s certainly some light creeping in. It’s also an incredible record, one of our favourites of last year, so it was with great anticipation we welcomed John back to London, and to the beautiful Islington Assembly Hall.
He wanders out without much fuss, carrying an acoustic guitar and joined by just drummer, Will Waghorn, and interestingly starts with a brand new song entitled The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes. It’s delightfully low-key, no pomp or ceremony for Murry. Which is pretty much the case of his whole career, he’s certainly no prisoner to fashion, be it musical or stylewise. He follow this up with The Ballad Of The Pajama Kid, joined now by a bass player and a guitarist. He also gives us the first example of his own personal take on stage banter. Whilst he’s something of a mumbler and with his Southern drawl it’s difficult to make out every word, but he’s also in possession of a brilliantly dry whit. Here he lays into Waghorn’s spelling on the set-list “hey there’s no Y in Pajamas, and while we’re at it there’s no U in colored, they’re my songs, I spell them how I like, fuck you, you can all fuck off” whilst it might not have gone down well elsewhere tonight the crowd take it with the pinch of salt that’s intended. Plus when you’ve got songs as good as this one, you can get away with it! It’s a stunningly sad beautiful song, John lamenting the end of a smashed and broken relationship, that despite his best intentions he can’t get away, “They told me to forget you, they never told me how” he notes before going on “I’d tell you goodbye, if goodbye was what I meant” there’s a tendency with someone like Murry, who’s backstory is so well established, to read too much into his words, is this written from the point of view of his wife? Or even about heroin? Most likely not, but part of the joy of a great lyricist is putting your own spin on things.
There’s surprisingly heavy takes on a number of his songs, whilst the album is full of lush, full sounding prodcution, here we get a scuzzier sound, emphasising what an excellent guitarist Murry is. A second new track Glass Slipper follows, boding well for hearing new music in the not too distant future. It’s no surprise though that the set is largely lifted from The Graceless Age, it’s an impressive body of work to be able to call upon. There’s Things We Lost In The Fire (“they tell me that there’s a film called that, but when your house has burnt down and you’ve lost your shit you call a song whatever you want”) it initially floats along on a beautifully understated guitar line, then as it collapses to nothing there’s a wonderful scuzzy guitar solo tagged on that acts as an enthrallingly loud outro. Previous single Southern Sky comes with the promise of him one day writing a whole song about dancing just so he can keep saying sashay. It’s a definite highlight, although robbed of the piano line that floats on the recorded version it’s still a wonderfully emotional track, John noting the power of love to keep people together in the darkest of times.
Maria’s Little Elbows by Sparklehorse is the first of a smattering of covers, and it’s a wonderful choice, perfectly suited to Murry and his band. California follows, a song that shows whilst Murry isn’t entirely a fan of the Southern states he’s got plenty of distaste for his adopted home in California too. It’s propelled by a superb bass line, adding a heavy almost proggy feel as John sings “there’s a knife in every back, and one in every hand, but I swear it ain’t you, it’s California I can’t stand.” Penny Nails is introduced by Murry asking us to guess what a penny nail is “it’s a nail that costs a penny, come on” and then recalling his father in law selling a couple of nails for several thousands pounds. ¿No te da ganas de reir, Señor Malverde? is introduced as “having a spanish title” and with a tale of a heckler, who so incensed by Murry not being able to play it at a show previously, took to hounding him on twitter to ensure he’d learnt it by the next time he came over.
He closes his main set with the much documented brilliance of “Little Colored Balloons” Murry taking to just singing as his band lead a piano and guitar version of the song. It’s slightly sloppy and the timing between guitar and keys certainly needs some work. However the power of this brilliant song means the packed crowd barely notice. A harrowing tale of a heroin overdose, it’s one of the most honest and open accounts of addiction ever put to record, and certainly one of the most moving. The emotion seems to overcome John slightly, his voice cracking, he stomps his feet to a beat that’s barely there and leaves the stage visibly shaken as his band play out the outro. It’s a lyrical masterpiece to pick out one line wouldn’t do it justice, it just must be heard. If people say nobody in music has got anything to say anymore, they’re not looking hard enough, John Murry is a true songwriting legend fit to grace any era.
He returns to play a couple of covers, Dylan’s Most Of The Time and an excellent version of Townes Van Zandt’s Waiting Around To Die before finishing with an acoustic version of Yer Little Black Book an as yet unreleased track that’s been doing the rounds for a while. It’s a typically understated departure from the man and a fitting end to an incredible set, but from what we saw tonight, it wont be the last we hear from John Murry