The Heights Theater has long been a source of entertainment for area residents, and there was buzz around the building last Saturday as concertgoers arrived to see a performance from James McMurtry.
As I walked under the iconic marquee sign and into the lobby, a line had already formed at the bar and eyes were glued to televisions showing college football games.
The vintage aesthetic of the refurbished theater had a timeless feel, and this was apparent immediately upon walking up to the box office, where I spotted an old-fashioned movie projector and other 20th-century touches.
The theater, which has a capacity of about 500 people, contains an upper box that has the feel of a mini opera house, making for an intimate feel with mostly unobstructed vantage points. I was among those who had standing-room only tickets for the sold-out show, and watched from the aisles off to either side of the floor seating.
In some ways, I felt the setting was incredibly appropriate for the theme of McMurtry’s new album, “The Horses and the Hounds,” which ponders questions of youth and aging and how relationships evolve over time.
McMurtry, 59, the son of legendary author Larry McMurtry, now calls Austin home. But he is in many ways a son of Houston.
He has carved out his own niche as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, and his most recent release (his 10th studio album) is just the latest chapter in a 30-year music career.
He spent his childhood at Roberts Elementary near Rice Stadium, while his parents were graduate students at Rice University, which he said inspired a 1995 song called “Lost in the Backyard.”
It was like the streets of a town I lived in when I was too young to drive, the song goes. It all looked so familiar, but I can’t find my way.
“That’s what Houston is for me,” McMurtry said. “I can find my way now, but when I first started going down there and playing gigs, everything looked familiar but I didn’t remember quite where anything was.”
McMurtry is equally adept in his writing and musicianship, which presented him with a conundrum of sorts for his latest record.
“These songs are kind of problematic for me in that they straddle a line between song and literature,” McMurtry said. “They’re pretty good as literature. The problem is that literature is hard to sing.”
With his previous album, “Complicated Game,” the songs “float” effortlessly. But he had a different analogy for “The Horses and the Hounds," which has tracks that McMurtry described as “dense.”
“It’s like running with a kite on a barely breezy day,” McMurtry said. “You can get it in the air, but it takes some work.”
McMurtry is also a showman with a comedic streak. During his lead-in to “Copper Canteen," he shared a story with an engaged crowd and plugged a New York Times piece that featured the song to take a playful jab at former President Donald J. Trump’s infamous comments about the country’s leading newspaper.
“I’m not sure if it’s failing,” he said. “It’s still here, isn’t it?”
The grizzled veteran of the music business is something of a journalist and historian himself. He told me that “Operation Nevermind” stemmed from the presidency of Ronald Reagan, when he said Reagan censored war coverage and did not allow camera crews to follow American forces following the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983.
“Now, you’ve got so many channels that everybody can find a channel that echoes their own point of view,” McMurtry said.
But ultimately, the high point of the evening was “Canola Fields,” in which McMurtry paints an elegant scene of driving through Western Canada and perhaps offers a rejoinder to naysayers early on in his journey who told him you can’t be young and do that while showing that even as he ages, he’s still got quite a bit left in the tank.
So, too, does the Heights Theater, still rocking even in the midst of a pandemic, and hopefully for another century to come.