Winding down his Southeastern U.S. tour, Colin Gilmore brought his unique brand of Northwest Texas roots rock to McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston last week.
Unless your finger is firmly on the pulse of the local Austin music scene, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of Gilmore. Despite his most recent tour being an exercise in impressive and illogical globetrotting — he made a detour to Auckland, New Zealand after playing SXSW — his following remains largely in the state he calls home, where classic country songwriting still reigns. The music matches Gilmore’s persona: understated and earnest, humble and friendly; it’s an easy mix of acoustic guitar and straightforward rhythms built for thoughtful lyricism and maximum boot stomping.
This fits perfectly at a venue like the Mucky Duck, a longstanding Houston institution filled with dark woods, worn upholstery, quiet folks, and decades of musical history.
Gilmore was at his best when he stuck to his simpler, sparser music. Songs like “Into My Future,” the first track from 2013’s The Wild and Hollow, ambled guilelessly through basic chord progressions and distinctly Southern themes (“Sunlight in your eyes / and a hurricane in your hair” being one particularly memorable line). The song “Circles in the Yard,” with its catchy chorus and country twang, cheerfully cautioned against biting the Big Apple too hard in pursuit of NYC music dreams. The simpler the song, the less the wear and tear of the tour showed.
Though his music skews to the spirited side, Gilmore’s more contemplative songs made for memorable moments. “Wake Me in The Night” brought the evening into a minor key, reflecting on the sad consequences of misplaced values and unchecked ambition. Gilmore’s otherwise affable voice rang out with somber doubt, “Little sister, would you wake me in the night?” wondering if his loved ones would stand by him despite failures and mistakes. The song ended with an unexpected twinge of hope, a bright and passionate crescendo of guitar, in an otherwise dark tale.
Gilmore built on the theme of fallen grace by covering “Heading for a Fall,” a song originally written by alternative country pioneer Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Collin’s father. The craftsmanship of this song was sturdy like a handmade oak table, and while the younger Gilmore did not deliver the signature warbles and folksy charm of the elder, the performance still proved that great country music is more than the sum of some elementary strumming and homespun lyrics.
Gilmore has a welcome collaborator in bassist Bonnie Whitmore, who rounded out the show impressively with the uplifting murder ballad “Embers and Ashes.” With added backing from the Bennett twins on drums and guitar, Whitmore delivered a bluesy, shmaltzy tale of burning a treacherous lover alive with his new paramour. It takes a special kind of voice — and a special kind of songwriter — to make aggravated arson murder sound capricious and lighthearted, but somehow Whitmore managed to do both.
Gilmore’s show is one of many celebrating the Mucky Duck’s 25th anniversary at a time when roots music is something of an outlaw; musicians who play with strings instead of synthesizers seek refuge in the grateful audiences who don’t enjoy their shows through a cell phone screen. Much like Gilmore himself, the venue isn’t interested in indulging in the affectations of music fame machinery; instead, it focuses on being a soft place to land for those living the tough life of music. Fans of Gilmore and others like him can only hope that the Mucky Duck sticks around for another 25 years, providing a warm, welcoming space to those who still want to hear music that comes from deep within the United States.