For those of you who like their music dark, moody and melancholic, John Murry may be just the singer-songwriter you’re looking for. His biography is certainly a bleak one. Adopted at an early age into the Mississippi family of William Faulkner, his autism was misdiagnosed and subsequent medication led to a myriad of addictions which intensified after the prescription for painkillers he was taking for surgery ended. During this time, his wife and daughter left him following a near-fatal heroin overdose but the one constant in Murry’s life during this time was music. Throughout these travails, Murry was developing important musical connections that would later inspire him to record his first album The Graceless Age in 2012, bravely chronicling his struggles with addiction. The record was a critical success and last year’s Short History of Decay followed, prompting his latest batch of intimate tour dates.
Opening for Murry in Chester’s St. Mary’s Creative Space this evening is Benjamin Folke Thomas. The impressive Swedish guitarist is part of Murry’s live band, but he has produced three albums of his own and is an affable presence as the late evening sun streams through the stained glass windows of tonight’s venue. He demonstrates an acute social conscience in his epic tale of a Kurdistan refugee in-between amusing anecdotes about proposing to his wife and instantly panicking about what life would be like if she left him. His songs demand to be listened to; like the best folk artists, he has populated them with colourful characters such as Thomas’ communist war hero grandfather in ‘Finn’ but they also exist as unassuming insights into his own personality, including his love of pool and the dream he had playing against Paul Newman. There’s a quixotic fluidity to his guitar playing which is a joy and his Johnny Cash style of delivery enhances the authenticity of his complex narratives, making for a hugely satisfying half an hour.
This congenial atmosphere dissipates to a degree when John Murry starts to play. He may have rejected some of what his home country represents, having relocated to Kilkenny in Ireland but his music is distilled from the many facets of a dark Americana that conjures links to a raft of other artists. It is no surprise to hear a distinct Green on Red influence considering Murry’s friendship with Chuck Prophet and his impressive slide guitar is balanced out by a sombre vocal delivery that paints a picture of a stark American landscape populated by a plethora of lost souls, but mainly by John himself.
In-between tracks, Murry provides a blackly humorous commentary; self-deprecating and colourful insights into Pablo Escobar and marriage prompt the next batch of engrossing songs. He may not have the status of someone like Bruce Springsteen (would he even want it) or the vast back catalogue of The Mountain Goats‘ John Darnielle but his songs are cut from a similar cloth as these multifarious artists. Intimate and esoteric, they exist as insights into a character brave enough to explore an array of emotions with strangers.
Folke Thomas returns to soften the jagged edges and is welcomed by an in-joke about peodophiles from John (nothing is sacrosanct in John’s hands) and a ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’-inspired introduction to the next song signals a more uncomplicated, melodic approach. Murry eventually introduces a significantly more uptempo pop song complimented by a jaunty keys-led melody; it may be one version of pop I suppose, but there’s a crestfallen pattern to the vocals still reminiscent of something more akin to Evan Dando’s version of paradoxical downbeat buoyancy. All of this is leading to Murry’s centre piece – ‘Little Coloured Balloons’ opens with tender keys and gentle vocals but underneath this there is a heartbreaking melancholy recounting the moment of his overdose in San Francisco. It’s tragic but utterly compelling and just like a car crash, we all slow down, unable to take our eyes of this performer and his elegant portrayal of calamity.
Photos: Iain Fox – see more in our gallery here.