Live From The Memory Hotel

Mark McKay

Dren Records, 2003

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


An acoustic guitar strumming chords full of longing and regret… a big lonely voice with rough edges that endear… a set of songs more about mood than substance, raw emotion than story-telling. This is Mark McKay.

Taking up the American troubadour tradition walked before him by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Steve Earle, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, McKay distinguishes himself by drawing portraits that are more impressionistic than naturalistic. "Constantine gardens appear when you smile / Talk to me please, bring me back to me" doesn't exactly get you from point A to point B, but set against a sweetly rolling melody, it sounds wonderful.

"Constantine Gardens" is one of three songs that actually appear twice on this mostly live disc. The first half is McKay with just his acoustic guitar and occasional support from the honey-voiced Kris Delmhorst, who doubles on fiddle and cello. In the solo/duo format, McKay's songs have a starkness that serves them well, zeroing you in on his words, whose very precision obscures their murky subjects.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The second half of the disc is McKay with a full electric band. Rather than simply filling out the sound, though, these arrangements transform the songs -- much like with Earle or that proto-Springsteen Matthew Ryan -- into big, keening, rapturous rock and roll . In this setting, McKay has the cojones to cover Springsteen's "Atlantic City." To his credit, it sounds great - full of all the anger and desperation the lyric demands -- even if it reminds you how much McKay's mythic poetry on a human scale owes to the Boss.

Other notable tracks include the twice-appearing "Nashville," with its wonderful riddle "I will not be a breaker anymore" - is it the abandoned woman or the remorseful man who speaks this line? Is the person who says it a heartbreaker? A wedding vow-breaker? Or someone with the bad habit of breaking everything they touch? Regardless, the regret that echoes through this song is palpable and moving.

"Long Lost Louise" is an evocative narrative of the wide open West, full of images of "sweating hills," "green barns and green grass." Right out of the American troubadour songbook, you'll also find road songs ("90 Miles"), amusing story-songs ("Mercedes") and a stirring electric, slide and vocals cover of an old traditional ("Moonshiner," also famously covered by Uncle Tupelo).

Live From The Memory Hotel also benefits from superb production - this is as clean and well-mixed a live recording as you'll ever find -- courtesy of McKay and Jared Bartlett. Behind the dials for the studio album McKay is currently finishing up for release -- and which will feature many of these songs -- was Roscoe Ambel, who quite naturally headed out from there to play guitar in Steve Earle's touring band. Look for the new disc, and Memory Hotel, at You won't be sorry.

Rating: B+

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© 2004 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Dren Records, and is used for informational purposes only.