Pop concerts this week: James McMurtry, Leyla McCalla, and Blast Furnace Blues Fest
With a deadpan delivery and a dead-on aim, James McMurtry has always been a brutally honest bard of the heartland. The son of Texas novelist Larry McMurtry sculpts vivid tales that never offer up easy romanticism or sentimentality, though many of them are not without sardonic wit. The singer-songwriter, who is working on a new album, has also been stretching out from the personal to the political. His most recent album, Just Us Kids, includes the cutting "Cheney's Toy" (that would be George W.) and the scathingly ironic "God Bless America." Although usually backed by a crackling roots-rock band, McMurtry is equally engrossing when he goes solo, as he will for this show.
- Nick Cristiano
James McMurtry, with Curtis McMurtry, plays at 8 p.m. Friday at the Ardmore Music Hall, 23 E. Lancaster Ave. Tickets: $25. Phone: 610-649-8389, www.ardmoremusic.com.
Leyla McCalla's remarkably assured debut, Vari-Colored Songs, comes with a multifaceted backstory. McCalla grew up in New York City to Haitian parents, studied classical cello at New York University, moved to New Orleans and immersed herself in Creole culture, and joined African American string-band revivalists the Carolina Chocolate Drops as a touring member. Vari-Colored Songs is a tribute to Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, with eight of its 14 songs using his words. It's also a tribute to Haitian culture, in the choice of Hughes' works, in several traditional folk tunes, and in the songs McCalla herself wrote. All that makes the album fascinating and ambitious, but better yet, it's deeply satisfying. McCalla's voice - reminiscent at times of Madeleine Peyroux - is full of the weary blues, as are the sparse arrangements, led by her cello, banjo, or acoustic guitar. She brings a trio to the Tin Angel Saturday.
- Steve Klinge
Leyla McCalla Trio, with Kwesi K, play 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Tin Angel, 20 S. Second St. Tickets: $20. Information: 215-928-0770, www.tinangel.com.
Blast Furnace Blues Fest
There's a terrific little festival called the Blast Furnace Blues happening at SteelStacks in Bethlehem up in the Lehigh Valley this weekend. It takes place over three days in the ArtsQuest Center, located in the old Bethlehem Steel Plant, and there's top blues and gospel talent all through the weekend. Blind Boys of Alabama and Duke Robillard play on Saturday, and the Sunday lineup really stands out, with unsung gospel powerhouse Naomi Shelton, blues shouter Candye Kane, Maria Muldaur and Midnight Ramble Band, and Cajun standardbearers Michael Doucet avec BeauSoleil. There's also a Sunday blues brunch, with New Orleans guitarist Walter "Wolfman" Washington.
- Dan DeLuca
Blast Furnace Blues festival, from 5 p.m. Friday to 8:15 p.m. Sunday, at the ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem, Pa. Tickets: $35-$194. Phone: 610-332-1300. www.artsquest.org/festivals/blastfurnaceblues.