Damien Jurado at The Rhythm Room on 6/28/10

"Feeling the west coast pull. One week left of tour," Damien Jurado wearily tweeted on the 27th, and pulling into the Rhythm Room's parking lot, I witnessed the singer/songwriter sprawled out on the hot pavement behind his van -- a clear sign that the road was taking its toll.

But despite a few coughs and complaints of a cold, Jurado didn't let any desires to get home spoil his performance. I've seen Jurado a couple times previous, and last night seemed a lot like watching an entirely different performer. While he's always been a solid performer, the songs of "Saint Bartlett," his new record, have clearly infused him with a new energy. 

Backed by members of opening band Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground, Jurado lead the group through just under an hour of spirited readings of the new record, taking a few minutes to banter with the crowd, and even joke around a bit, a far cry from the stoic persona he displayed when I last saw him.

Jurado and band took the stage and played "Saint Bartlett" in its entirety, with the band-members alternating between replicating the Richard Swift production of the record, like the beer bottle percussion on "Arkansas," and adding new embellishments, like the jazzy piano runs that added a Van Morrison edge to "The Falling Snow." 

Despite fighting an obviously sore throat, Jurado's voice was in fantastic form, bounding on opener "Cloudy Shoes," conjuring up gospel clarity on "Kalama."  Soaring over over-driven  guitars and a relentless rhythm section, Jurado connected Low-style mope-rock with a Crazy Horse vibe, kind of the way I wish that Retribution Gospel Choir record did. 

Dismissing the band for a few solo takes, Jurado took sometime to share his Arizona history; after being born in Los Angeles, his family moved to Germany, then back to the States, settling in Surprise, AZ, then Glendale and then Phoenix, where he attended Saguaro Elementary.  When one audience member suggested that was in Scottsdale, Jurado laughed.

"Don't mess with me man, I didn't live in Scottsdale. I lived in fuckin' Phoenix, Arizona." 

He then played a request, "Yuma, AZ," noting, "I only ever got gas there, I don't know why I wrote a song about it." The song, which I highlighted in this week's print edition, actually coaxed the crowd into singing along, and found Jurado cracking a few jokes mid-song about the sexual fumbling of the song's characters.

"Who is this guy?" Jurado cracked wise on himself. "I though he sang sad songs!  We didn't come for a comedy show, we came to cry."

Jurado's past performances haven't been too far off from the joke. Hell, when I first saw him, at the Rhythm Room promoting his record "On My Way To Absence," I may even have shed a tear.  But the Damien Jurado who performed last night seemed an altogether happier guy, maybe it was the presence of his wife (a talented photographer, responsible for the stunning "Saint Bartlett" artwork), maybe it was the presence of adoring fans, maybe it was the camaraderie between the songwriter and his band. 

Jurado finished with a brand new song, "Diamond Sea." It merged the lilting, mystic quality of the "Saint Bartlett" sessions with Jurado's trademarked sad-bastard melodies, and lyrics that Jurado suggested may someday become a children's story. Looking to the fair young lady next to me, I noticed a little wetness around her eyes. "Funny how we all can change, if you just try to," Jurado sang during, opener "Cloudy Shoes," but as it turns out, some habits are hard to break.

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Damien Jurado at The Rhythm Room

Better Than: I'm sure Blitzen Trapper sounded great across town, but I have a hard time believing they managed to be as concise or as intense as Jurado and crew. 

Personal Bias: I've been a fan of Jurado for a long time- spinning his records at my miserable overnight job as a hotel clerk at a particularly (and melodramatic) bleak time in my early twenties. 

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.