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James McMurtry at the Kessler

I have spent an eternity traveling US Highway 69 through Oklahoma.

To be clear: even once driving that 233-mile road from the Red River until you pick up Interstate 44 at Big Cabin qualifies as “too much time”. Doing the round trip entitles you to use the phrase “my time in Hell” in conversation. Do the round trip at least once annually, as I did with my family from my 10th through 18th years (often twice a year), and then voluntarily at least 10 times as an adult–you come to truly understand the words “Hell” and “eternity”. Viscerally.

And then you discover the James McMurtry song “Choctaw Bingo”.

The song becomes the travelogue of your sprint up this highway (and more than just “about the north Texas-southern Oklahoma crystal methamphetamine industry” as McMurtry announces on his album Live in Aught-Three). Get to know the song, and you find yourself checking off landmarks as you pass through dusty one-stoplight towns. Tushka–check. McAlister–check. Lake Eufaula–check. Big Cabin–check. Even beyond (as we always did when I was a child) onto Interstate 44 under the McDonald’s bridge at Vinita–check.

Even though the song’s lyrics are a little dated by now (the gaming facility the song is named for has since been replaced by the Choctaw Casino–which does still host Bingo on the first weekend of each month) it is still the biggest crowd-pleaser McMurtry plays. And it should be. It’s just plain damn raunchy fun.

During Friday night’s show at the Kessler Theater, he invited the crowd to “dance if ya like” before the song, and in the middle invited some of the more vigorous of the ladies to join the band on the stage. One distracted him so much by rubbin’ on him while he played, he noted that “It’s been years since I forgot the words at this point in the song.”

“Choctaw” came fairly early in the show, and he managed to play several favorites from Aught-Three: “Red Dress” (which he opened with), “Fraulein O.”, “Levelland”, and “Too Long in the Wasteland”. He did a solo acoustic version of “Ruby and Carlos” and the full band gave us “Bayou Tortue”, “Hurricane Party”, You’d a’ Thought (Leonard Cohen Must Die)”, “Childish Things”, “Restless”, and “Freeway View”, all from his more recent Live in Europe album.

For some of his early between-song tuning, he just tuned quietly, but as the show got on and he could tell the crowd was into it, he popped in funny comments or political notes. Before “We Can’t Make It Here”, McMurtry noted that they stopped playing the song for awhile, but resumed because it was still relevant. As he said, “Guess it sucks for everyone but us.”

While preparing to play the rocker “Lobo Town”, he noted that all the “rural Americans” he knew growing up were Kiss fans, and so they were about to play “country music for Kiss fans.” He also quipped that there were 2 things common to the South that “Nashville doesn’t write songs about: feral hogs and methamphetamines.”

He ended the main show with “Too Long in the Wasteland”, but was called back to the stage by the first encore I’ve seen an audience actually earn in years. He treated us to a solo acoustic performance of “Lights of Cheyenne”. Probably my favorite of his songs.

All in all, a great show.

And I didn’t even have to suffer through Oklahoma for it.