June 13, 2017
It would seem that if you want to catch an artist like James Vincent McMorrow play live in his true element, then you have to take a drive out to the middle of nowhere, away from the bigger cities and the noise, away from all of the distractions, away from the familiar. That’s the way that McMorrow carries himself as a musician – someone who doesn’t create art for the blogs or the critics, or even the year’s biggest festivals, but for the humble stages in small ballrooms packed full of eager listeners. That element was captured in its entirety when McMorrow played the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, NC, a town featuring plenty of vast farmland and a beautiful river view, but not known for its live music scene. The location didn’t seem to make a bit of difference to the Irish singer-songwriter, who has released four full-length records since his debut release, Early in the Morning (2010) and recently played this year’s Bonnaroo Festival, lending further credence to his seeming message that musical experience isn’t about where it’s being played.
The entire evening defied expectation of what a concert should be. Instead of a dark, windowless venue full of strobing, colorful lights, McMorrow and his band took the stage as the sun set over the river, flooding the entire room with the deep orange glow of natural light through the ballroom’s giant wall-scale windowpane. As the sun continued to set, fading from red light to a deep indigo and finally slipping into darkness, giving way to the soft pink hue draped over the stage from the rafters, McMorrow played through the entirety of his latest release, True Care. It’s a testament to the artist’s control of genre and style. The songs ranged from belting, powerful R&B-inspired anthems to subtle electronic numbers, sometimes shifting genres within the same song. McMorrow’s sound reflects a deep appreciation and understanding of music all across the board, taking influence from artists like Justin Vernon (Bon Iver/Volcano Choir), James Blake, Frank Ocean, and other pioneers of the singer-songwriter field. As commanding as McMorrow’s voice is, one of the most captivating pieces of the set was the projector screen that ran behind the band, displaying constantly shifting visuals dancing across the screen, expanding, shrinking, and exploding in sync with the volume of the music and the pitch of McMorrow’s feather-light vocals. The aroma of fresh coffee grounds from the second-floor café lingered about the ballroom as the band enraptured the crowd with every song, drawing them further and further into the hypnotic performance. Halfway through the set, McMorrow commented on how True Care “isn’t a concept album, but it plays like one,” representing a progression through the singer’s past, present, and future. Whatever it may symbolize, True Care is a record that deserves to be listened to front to back. It has a certain unspeakable weight to it that’s only compounded in a live setting. After a short break, the band returned to the stage for their second set, this time a mix of older songs, further showcasing McMorrow’s progression and combination of multiple genres. From the songs chosen off of his previous records, the crowd got a taste of his folk and country sides with some rock n’ roll thrown into the mix just to even things out, still always returning to the singer’s unbelievable live vocal talent. After the conclusion of the second set, McMorrow returned to the stage one last time to play his soulful cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” to a deafening round of applause and cheers; a perfect way to end the band’s all-encompassing double set.
All night, McMorrow reflected on how much fun he was having with the crowd in this small, middle-of-nowhere ballroom, with an almost condemning tone for the “big city shows.” It was easy to see that this kind of night was the root of the band’s passion for music – the intimacy and closeness, a special few hours spent with people who wouldn’t have been anywhere else, stuffed together with all eyes on the stage. That’s what it’s all about for this group of musicians. They don’t play for the press, and they don’t play for the clout. They don’t play so that they can end up on the biggest tours or festivals. They don’t play to please the powers that be. They play only for the people.
Check out the remaining 2017 tour dates for James Vincent McMorrow.