Reviewed on Wednesday August 20

I am only a recent convert to John Murry, and so the chance to review his acoustic set at The Basement was pretty fantastic timing – usually I’m the kind of fan who only really becomes one once the circus has already rolled out of town. Even better, he was to be supported by the husky-voiced Heath Cullen. I have found that the trick to gigs is to keep your expectations muffled, and so I tried not to get my hopes up of seeing Cullen perform ‘Silver Wings’ or Murry launch into the heart-shuddering honesty of ‘Little Colored Balloons’.

Turns out, Heath Cullen chose to open his set with ‘Silver Wings’, so already the night was off to a promising start. The strength of Cullen’s songwriting is the vividness of his lyrics, his turns-of-phrase that sit somewhere between Paul Kelly and Neil Finn. With references to dusty-town Australia – blackened cornfields, magpies, trucks dropping to 80 before speeding off again – he imbues slight and casual observations with sad profundity. The title track from his last album, The Still And The Steep, was his set’s ominous highlight, played like a lovely, broken tango.

When John Murry began to address the crowd, my fears that the show would somehow lurch off the rails seemed validated. His introductory remarks consisted of a rambling account of the low literacy rates in his home state, Missouri, and places he had stayed when last visiting Australia. However, this turned out to be one of the most arresting sets I have seen in some time. The audience were treated to songs never before played live, and the dark lyricism of previous album The Graceless Age has certainly carried into his new material. There is something haunting about Murry’s voice and guitar, or, as he put it himself, “This is some redneck Thom Yorke shit here.”

At the close, he found himself requested to sing the nine-minute, harrowing chronicle of almost dying from a heroin overdose, ‘Little Colored Balloons’. After warning the crowd it would be his last song (it wasn’t – Cullen joined him for a cover-heavy encore), Murry mostly made it to the end before conjuring those memories became too much and he abruptly stormed offstage, knocking things over and disappearing behind the curtain. I do not fault him at all. To sing that song must take a great deal of courage, and to do so with such brutal strength and sadness is a moment I’ll remember.

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