James Vincent McMorrow
Saturday 28th January 2017 – Ulster Hall
I am a gig goer. I love them. For me, there is nothing better than meandering off a street and into a venue big or small. Seeing the music conjured and whirled around the space; impacting on and changing lives; giving birth to new thoughts and ideas is magic to me. I tell you this to add context to my next claim; James Vincent McMorrow is undoubtedly one of the best artists of today to see live.
This Ulster Hall gig as part of the Out To Lunch Festival is the third time I have seen him live, each in a different country, never in a better venue. Each time there is an increased sense of personality that emanates from the stage. The unity between James, his band, the music they play and the audience grows in a way that transcends the word show and enters experience territory.
It has been years since McMorrow last played Belfast and so anticipation and expectation within a lot of the gathered crowd was no doubt high. This was alleviated as the house lights died down to be replaced by a heavy orange glow accompanied by Roy Ayers’ ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’, lifting away any ideas that we were there to see another depressive folk singer-songwriter as McMorrow and his band took to the stage.
Opening with ‘Red Dust’ the percussion produced by the two drum kits on stage (one electronic) reverberated through each torso like a heartbeat, the mystic keys led us down the path of the much heralded wisping voice, climaxing in the soaring notes attached to “I need someone to hold”. It is a captivating. hair raising moment that instantly captures the audience. Samples from all three albums appear in the first five songs of the set; including ‘Get Low’ with its unashamed R&B vibe and sexy guitar riffs; and ‘Breaking Hearts’, a song of brittle admission from his debut Early in the Morning.
Here some of his slower tempo songs immersed the audience, including his famous cover of Steve Winwood’s ‘Higher Love’. The atmospheric ‘Down the Burning Ropes’ and its sinister tones are backed by a deep red light pushing the unease of the lyrics upon the crowd.
The band re-joined McMorrow after some solo efforts for the heavily synthesised blasts that accompany Post Tropical’s ‘Gold’; lifting the general mood back to embrace the new found R&B and hip hop based material. ‘Killer Whales’ raised the roof and the bar for the evening before being surpassed by ‘Rising Water’ which brought the entire seated ground floor to their dancing feet as James strutted from side to side on stage. ‘We Don’t Eat’ fulfilled its duties as a crowd pleaser alongside the consistently incredible light accompaniment. The soaring vocals of ‘Surreal’ brought the pre-encore set to a close and the band received their first standing ovation of the night after slipping off stage one by one. The song is long, drawn out and suspense filled, bringing a tender moment as the night approaches a close.
They return with ‘If I Had a Boat’, an old favourite, before concluding with the epic ‘Cavalier’. Perhaps his most compelling song; the lyrics are chopped and cryptic, the vocals wrap around each key as the music builds and triumphs over everything that dares to challenge it. The power of ‘I remember my first love’ echoes and resonates and James and his band leave the stage for the last time. Amen.
Undeniably one of the most talented musicians produced in Ireland, McMorrow should be held in as high esteem as any. Not only is he a recording artist in transition; moving from folk towards more confident R&B beats, but as a showman he has matured. He brings a degree of personal passion to his show that is often missing with artists of his ilk who are often so tired from touring to care about who the people are in front of them. James Vincent McMorrow not only conjures the music, but he conjures a vibe to take home and seems incapable of disappointment.