McMorrow, McMorrow, girls love ya, McMorrow…
You’ll have to forgive the “Annie” song parody—but here’s a summary of what I’d heard from more than a few people regarding James Vincent McMorrow: “He’s like an Irish Bon Iver that women like.” And truth be told, eight out of ten of the people shmushed and sweating around me at the sold out O2 gig a few days ago were women. So I’d venture a guess that it was a mostly female awwwwwdience. But I think what that mainly proves is that women have good taste in beardy Irish folky troubadours (troubeardours?).
So let’s get the obvious out of the way: James’ breathy, ethereal voice is magical. There’s nothing false about that soaring falsetto. It’s like finding gold amidst all of today’s auto-tune muck. Whenever this guy isn’t singing he should feel guilty for not singing. He started off with the catchy, up-tempo ‘Sparrow And The Wolf’ and you could tell almost immediately the show was going to be a fuller, richer, more satisfying experience than listening to his Early In The Morning album at home. Pleasant as that critically-approved disc is, McMorrow sounds much more unique and absorbing live. His talent really is almost tangible.
I felt like he really hit his stride around song three, the slightly countryesque ‘Breaking Hearts’. The crowd, which seemed like it was holding its collective breath a bit up until this moment, started to relax and sing along. Including some of the guys, which seems proof they weren’t all just dragged there by their girlfriends. After two more tunes, the haunting ‘Down The Burning Ropes’ and the endearingly wistful ‘Follow You Down To The Red Oak Tree’, James finally addressed the audience directly. With his Wayne’s World 2 and Total Recall references, he managed to come off as humorous and humble, a somewhat rare combination. He remembered aloud that the last time he played in Oxford it was at the Jericho Tavern to a much smaller assembly, and he seemed genuinely grateful for his increased flock of fans.
As McMorrow takes us through the rest of his repertoire, including a solo piano rendering of the must-do ‘Higher Love’ and a kick-ass cover of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Games’ (which James insists he’s going to put to rest soon), he continues to impress, interspersing some jaw-droppingly impossibly long notes with perfectly timed pauses. He is adept at wielding his audience’s anticipation, often starting his songs at almost whisper-level as if he’s confiding in you, then comes the crescendo and finally the soft landing. The lower register of his voice has a rasp reminiscent of Ray Lamontagne, which ain’t a bad thing. As a lyricist, McMorrow is best when he employs narrative; in my opinion, the song ‘We Don’t Eat’ was the highlight of the night.
All in all, the man with the long name played a really long set, sixteen songs in all including encore. And even with a full, five-person band contributing bass, electric guitar, percussion, mandolin and some astonishing five part harmonies, it can’t help but sound a little same-ish after awhile. I’ve read that McMorrow’s early musical interests resided in the hardcore rock arena and I wouldn’t mind perhaps hearing him reinterpret some of those influences in the future.