Gig review: T-J & Murphy @ Birkenhead Priory
International Guitar Festival of Great Britain – Saturday 13th November 2010
T-J & Murphy myspace.com/thomasjosephandmurphy
Part One: Acoustic Set
An acoustic set took us by the hand, leading us on, leading us down the road, including some favourite songs from “Weary Nights”, more recent songs which have become favourites and some surprises. Picking a selection:
Iron Man (From the CD “Weary Nights”) Tonight I learnt though many songs are written together, this song was Dave’s inspiration. It is one that always leaves me with a lump in my throat, from the remarkably touching, descriptive first line, poignantly describing pride and misplaced “strength”, constructing a carapace through which vulnerability and love cannot penetrate, a life time of scar tissue that will let no one in nor emotion out, driving people away, a sad man who cannot be broken but will never feel the comfort of warm humanity. Wistful strumming guitar, slide guitar of regret and the exceptionally expressive timbre of Thomas’s voice perfectly illustrate the heartbreak the lyrics describe.
Taking us on to the innocence of new life, as we shimmer into: Island of the Saints [YouTube] Recently Thomas has taken to introducing the background to some of their songs, which beautifully sets the scene. We learn from him that this one is inspired by the christening of his daughter and its magical location, a truly lovely song, sparkling twin picked guitars of Thomas and Dave capturing the twinkle of sunlight on aqua water, voices poignantly expressing pure gentle love and wonderment at a small innocent soul meeting God and his creations, seeing beauty through her innocent eyes, caressing and soothing with whispered harmonies, an inspired composition.
From one innocent to another, whose life ended barely before it began, in the tragedy of war: Raymond Steed [YouTube] As Thomas introduces the song it is evident how moved he was by this tragic tale of a fresh, hopeful life, keen for adventure, brought to a premature end by the horrors of war. In Thomas’s words: “Raymond was 14 year and 207 days old when he died making him the youngest ever serviceman to die in World War II. He enrolled in the merchant navy when he was just 14, what courage he must have had for his tender age. This really moved me and I had to write about it. For me songs are alive when there played, peoples stories, our own stories, Raymond’s story and I wanted people to know it. Raymond Steed sailed out a boy and died a man.”
A tale expressed with such poetry, twin guitars, locked together, painting a picture as clear as brush strokes, dawn light glinting on steel grey sea, promising adventure, lachrymose eyes mesmerised by a watery universe on which floats this scrap of human endeavour, murky swirling depths where sirens sing, entice and entrap the unwary, the unlucky, drowned in the tender plaintive poignancy of Thomas’s voice, caressed by gentle waves of Dave’s harmonies, bringing to life a tragic tale, of a young life lost, a spark extinguished, lives of many sacrificed for our freedom, strangers by name, whose spirits should live in our hearts forever.
Another post “Weary Nights” song which I love: Joanna Love [YouTube] Once again, Thomas’s voice and Dave’s higher ephemeral harmonies convey sheer empathy, raise goose bumps, a direct connection to emotion whilst gentle caressing guitar paints a picture of the words, soothing like a lover’s slow hands, lingering, giving unconditional love, wiping tears of hurt, healing neglect, soft gentle vocals speak of wanting to know and understand, to mend what is broken, a blossoming of love and expression of such tenderness, it does inescapably draw tears.
Lilting into:Not Enough (from the CD, “Weary Nights” ) I have never been able to decide whether this is the classic, gentle, soothing, love song which it sounds like, spare guitar, letting Tom’s tender vocal soar, leading into languid Latin dalliance and back again, is this enough?, is this not enough?, is this a love song or is it not? maybe not my favourite song but intriguing me still.
Late Night Line (from the CD, “Weary Nights” ) [YouTube] Another star from “Weary Nights”, the tender pathos of this song has always touched my heart, brought a lump to my throat, Thomas’s vocal weighed down with quiet yet despairing weariness, swallowed tears, unspeakable grief and yearning. It wasn’t until tonight I learnt the imperative which wrenched this song from a soul filled with sorrow and recognised why it also filled me with tears, those weary deepest darkest hours, thick with murmurings from another world, longing for, waiting for, listening for, a sign, for any communication to ripple, crackle through the ether from twilight dimensions where once mortal spirits roam free, where earthbound feet cannot follow, portals and paths which only our minds can open and our immortal souls tread, the link between all things past and present, mortal and immortal, the road to eternity, everything and nothing existing side by side, every molecule connected, in harmony, never lost however scattered, always part of the universal whole.
Guitars like twinkling stars, call to the night skies where Thomas’s simple plea flies, Dave’s gentle harmonies like lost souls wandering the airwaves, gently endearing, weeping, seeking consolation, seeking to embrace and comfort, to be embraced and comforted, a brave song, acknowledging our human frailty and loneliness in face of the unknowable.
A relatively new song , at least to me, Song from the Glen completed the first half, apart from yet another new departure, two “covers”, Travelling Star by James Taylor [YouTube] and Boys of Summer by the Eagles [YouTube]. Though I have heard T-J & Murphy adapt and cover Beatles’ songs for the Beatles festival, this was the first time I heard “covers” interwoven between their own songs. Usually I find “covers” uncomfortable, as a good song is usually very personal to its creators but somehow these songs became T-J & Murphy songs in their celebration of and sensitivity to, the original artistes. Both beautiful songs, “Travelling Star”, in particular provides a direct insight into some of the influences behind TJ and Murphy, something I had never consciously thought about, which I incorrectly refer to as American “road songs”, travelling through life and minds.
I do not know much about James Taylor nor the Eagles except, they both came to prominence in America in the ‘70’s, faded in popularity before resurgence in the 1990’s, one as a singer/songwriter and the other a “mega” rock band but T-J & Murphy manages to link them both to each other and themselves by the universal language of music, highlighting underlying influences which flow through both, crossing barriers.
The words to Travelling Star could have fallen from the mouths and minds of T-J & Murphy “…tie me up and hold me down …oh, my travelling star …bury my feet down in the ground… oh, old road dog …claim my name from the lost and found …and let me believe this is where I belong …shame on me for sure ….for one more highway song…” and I guess James Taylor would gain great pleasure from singing a T-J & Murphy song but I would never have imagined a rock classic like “Boys of Summer” forming part of T-J’s set until I thought of the words “….out on the road today I saw a Black Head sticker on a Cadillac….. a little voice inside my head said: “Don’t look back, you can never look back.”…. I thought I knew what love was. What did I know?… Those days are gone forever. I should just let them go, but… I can see you… your brown skin shining in the sun…. and I can tell you my love for you will still be strong…after the boys of summer have gone….” , one of those universal themes that T-J & Murphy deal with so well and leading neatly into the second half of the concert, when in another new departure, T-J & Murphy went electric.
Part Two: Band Set
T-J & Murphy have on occasion played with guest band members but this line up heralded a new era, with songs specifically written or arranged for band, a TJ and Murphy band, rather than acoustic duo. As Thomas and Dave adorned themselves with seriously beautiful classic vintage guitars, a Gibson ES-335 for Thomas and Fender Stratocaster Corona Custom for Dave, my heart leapt. The first beat of Alec Brits on drums and my heart skipped two before plunging to the depths of my soul with Jeff Jepson’s bass.
Though crammed and tumbling off a crowded stage these boys managed to describe wide open spaces and distant horizons to my ears with their new sound, warm dark tones of the semi acoustic Gibson counterpointed by classic Stratocaster wail, echoing the voices of their owners, supported by mellow, rounded, precise drums, anchored by sympathetic musical bass.
As many of the songs in this half are new and unrecorded and this was the first time I had heard them in a band setting, I do not feel sure enough for detailed descriptions, this felt like a night of experimentation, however I will never forget the look of absolute sheer delight and excitement in the eyes of Thomas and Dave as, unleashed, they joyfully explored new territories, taking us with them. The light in their eyes led and enchanted the mesmerised audience, left us wanting to hear more, to follow where they led. I will however give you a flavour:
All I have ever known: A quiet, slight but sweet song introduced us to Dave on keyboard for the first time, few notes but well spoken. Sadly the keyboard held its tongue for the rest of the night but I look forward to an extension of its repertoire on future occasions.
Old Dog (from the CD, “Weary Nights” ) [YouTube] : One of my all time favourite T-J & Murphy songs, from “Weary Nights”, proved you can teach an old dog new tricks, rejuvenated by re instrumentation, I heard it afresh: The poignancy of this song always makes me cry and given new life becomes almost cinematic, a long dusty road reaching into flaming sunset, a face etched with life’s journey through pleasures and sorrows, lit by a fleeting smile of recollection, weary feet dragging as forever reaches its end, describes so exquisitely the transience and heartbreak of this existence, one of those perfect songs which though quiet and introspective translates perfectly from acoustic.
Having written the above, Thomas’s amusing story about the inspiration for this song is not quite as romantic, an unwashed odyssey of a tour, crammed in a tin can car. I can only assume it was fumes which transformed that experience into this pleasure.
The set continued with In Your Hands which I have heard in several incarnations, each time with more understanding and enjoyment, followed by Michigan destined for the new CD, “Hurricanes”, this is one of two songs, the other being the title song, which most completely departs, in my ears, from T-J & Murphy’s other compositions. Though I have heard an acoustic version of Michigan, it feels like it was written with a band in mind, more meandering than their other songs and still in evolution, this song, reminiscent of American road songs, is growing on me as it becomes more familiar. I look forward to listening as it further metamorphoses over coming weeks before being committed to plastic.
Little Dreamer, a quiet tender song, is the only one sung by Dave alone. Usually Thomas takes lead vocal with Dave providing subtle and sympathetic harmonies. Like their choice of classic guitars, the two voices contrast and compliment, provide a foil for each other, lock together in different registers to synthesise a harmonious whole, two become one, so it is somewhat startling to hear Dave’s higher register, solo and flute like without the anchor of Thomas’s warmer tones, a poignant interlude allowing the audience to draw breath before the last official song of the set:
Power of Persuasion (from the CD, “Weary Nights” ) [YouTube]: Though a classic T-J & Murphy bitter sweet love song from “Weary Nights”, this felt like a slightly strange choice to end on but we all know there will be an encore and this is simply a hiatus, rather like the end of the song itself, which seems to stop before running its course. Guitars drawn out and laconic as the icon they describe, wafting through life, weaving magic, entrancing, Thomas’s voice heavy with desire conjures up the setting for this encounter, Dave wreaths cigarette smoke while bass plunges a persuasive arrow deep into a yearning heart. I have an unresolved relationship with this song, a beautiful and heartfelt tune which I love but at the same time am uncertain about, maybe because it seems to be in two disparate halves and not completely realised, to my inexperienced ears. Despite niggles it still sings in my head, unbidden and maybe that is the point of the song, unsure but open to persuasion, swayed by TJ and Murphy magic and well suited to band instrumentation.
Which just leaves the clamoured encore, two songs not familiar to me, She the Mersey and Hurricanes the title track to T-J & Murphy’s gestating new CD. With “Michigan”, “Hurricanes” sounds like the start of a new era, an exploration of new musical horizons, new instruments, a more open expansive sound and roaming narrative than we are used to from the boys. I look forward to following in their footsteps as they lead us down paths anew. Entranced, now released, the audience breathing a collective sigh gradually emerge and unfurl from immersion in T-J & Murphy’s luminous landscape, shaking our limbs we all agree it has been quite a journey, starting in familiar terrain before leading us down the yellow brick road towards a sparkling Emerald City. This feels like the start of new travels, of experimentation and evolution as the boys don their sparkling red shoes and click their heels, I am watching out for the tornado they are sure to whip up, hoping to cling to its tail and be transported to more wonderful, magical T-J & Murphy worlds.
© December 2010 Chumki Banerjee
Thomas-Joseph & Murphy will be playing Liverpool Acoustic Live at the View Two Gallery on Friday 25th March. Tickets are £5 in advance from wegottickets.com/liverpoolacoustic and £6 on the door. Doors open at 8.00pm and the music runs from 8.30pm to 11.15pm. Support on the night is from Virginia Haze and SJ Downes. And there’s a licensed bar too! Details from liverpoolacoustic.co.uk/live
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