Finding the present tense

Finding the present tense

Austin Americana fixture Gurf Morlix rolls into the Coffee Gallery Backstage Tuesday night

By Bliss 04/02/2014

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There's something about watching a seasoned pro at work - you can relax, knowing you can depend on them to escort you through the musical landscape of their choice. A modest, unspoken compact is made. You take your seat - or barstool, or favorite leaning spot by the jukebox - and they stretch out across their spot onstage, plug in, finger a few notes and cast a vague look your way. And a small collective breath is shared, of expectation and then release, as familiar songs are unspooled and new ones revealed, sketching out unknown yet somehow familiar vistas.

Such is the case with Gurf Morlix, widely respected multi-instrumentalist and producer who has helped sculpt and texture the sound of myriad Americana and country luminaries: Peter Case, Slaid Cleaves, Steve Earle, Mary Gauthier, Butch Hancock, Robert Earl Keen, Ian McLagan, Tom Russell, Ray Wylie Hubbard and, most memorably, Lucinda Williams, to name but a handful.
Morlix also enjoys a kind of cult status as a dedicated craftsman who has released eight albums with his own name alongside the title, the most recent being last year's "Finds the Present Tense." They're all consistent sets of steady mid-tempo grooves, sly, dry wit and compactly told stories. Morlix has a lot of those.

Onstage, those stories serve as carefully timed mile markers between songs that take listeners on a low-key road trip through musical and historical Americana, accompanied by his confidently plied guitars and stomp board: "Walkin' to New Orleans." A pensive "These Are My Blues." Jimmy Reed's humorous "Take Out Some Insurance." "Food, Water, Shelter & Love." Blaze Foley's heartbreaking country lament "If I Could Only Fly." The Staple Singers' gospel rally "This May Be the Last Time." "Music You Mighta Made." The tautly observed "Madalyn's Bones," inspired by the 1995 murder of atheist activist Madalyn Murray O'Hair ("Open your heart, speak your mind/ Life will pay you back in kind/ ...The last thing she wanted was them to roll back the stones/ And be praying over Madalyn's bones").

They're lean yet pithy songs that connect with savvy listeners at small clubs and house concerts (one of which he played at this writer's home a couple of years ago). Morlix has gradually established himself as a solo artist on that acoustic circuit since moving to Austin in 1991, after a decade in LA's then-exploding roots scene playing with Case, Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy & Julie Miller, Michael Penn and Warren Zevon.

He's back in California this week for a string of dates, including one Tuesday at the Coffee Gallery Backstage, where he'll be joined by harmony singer Amilia Spicer. It's a recommended night for anyone who favors that swampy intersection where blues, country, folk, gospel and rock ‘n' roll blur the boundaries. n

Gurf Morlix plays Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 N. Lake Ave., Altadena, 8 p.m. Tuesday; $15. Info/reservations: (626) 798-6236. Gurfmorlix.com, coffeegallery.com

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