London – Texas-born Kevin Morby has arrived as a solo artiste augmented by a regular touring band, via spells, as the bassist for psych folk act Woods and co-vocalist alongside Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls with The Babies. The solo label is one that he wears well, uniting the world weariness of a seasoned troubadour with something quite contrary – a sense of oneness with the natural world that allows him to see stars rather than city lights and hear coyotes away from urban noise. Though, his world weariness may now hold sway with the result of the U.S. presidential election. The Los Angeles based musician, along with I suspect almost all those American musos taking the stage somewhere that evening, was for Hilary… the aftershock was still to come.
The Islington Assembly Hall is a spacious, elegant, and above all, civilised venue in North London next to the Town Hall. Kevin Morby was clearly impressed by the night’s turnout, especially after a late “sold out” sign went up. He later confessed this had been the most people he’d played to outside of a festival, and there was clearly much love in the room for the tousle-haired singer-songwriter. It was a shame more of the civility referenced above wasn’t extended to support act, Meg Baird, during whose set a number felt the urge to share life stories with their nearest neighbours. The much musically-travelled San Francisco resident deserved a pin-drop auditorium for her classy songs, pure intonation, and resonant finger-picked guitar. Though often compared to the English folk rock tradition, for me Meg Baird also carried a Laurel Canyon vibe with her and looked the part with her long hair – though her stage ensemble of knitwear, blue leather skirt and psychedelic patterned tights added a touch more contemporary individuality. The applause at the end of her set thankfully countered the chattering classes.
Backed by the trio of Meg Duffy on lead guitar and backing vocals, bassist Cyrus Gengras and his former Babies band mate, Justin Sullivan on drums, Kevin Morby opened an 80-minute set with “Cut Me Down,” the first track from his 2016 solo album, Singing Saw. Grey suited and sporting a golden bootlace tie, his Dylanish nasal drawl cut through the night air, while the band created a clean, chopped backdrop to the singer’s stark premonition of a fall from grace. It was a surprise that Morby chose to follow it with “Dorothy,” the most immediate and uptempo piece on the album, rather than save it for later in the set. The song lost a little in translation live, though Meg Duffy did her upmost to remodel the orchestral transitions that are such a feature on the album version, via guitar effects. What was lost was made up for in terms of energy and drive, while Morby channelled a dose of Lou Reed into his vocal. It would have made a great encore.
The set progressed with a selection of songs from Singing Saw and earlier material. “Harlem River” was particularly atmospheric, anchored by an insistent bass line and imbued with a sense of a gathering storm culminating in a dueling guitar and bass finale. Duffy added appealing harmonies to “Destroyer” and laid down an intensely lyrical guitar solo, leading to an extended jam in which Kevin Morby introduced each band mate to real audience appreciation. Meg Duffy is an exceptional guitar player, with the fluidity of a Jerry Garcia topped with occasional Dave Gilmour-esque flourishes, while Gengras’ rich bass lines and Sullivan’s punching drums were perfect for Morby’s rhythmic repertoire. The singer’s own work on his red Fender filled in rhythm and gilded it with occasional lead lines. When not facing the audience to sing, he frequently turned his back to play to the drums.
“Singing Saw” provided the evening’s highlight with the full band on stage. The album’s title track sums up Morby’s world view of duality; the saw being capable of both destruction and creation. It was brilliantly realised live as a sprawling epic of intent, full of portent and with a simply mesmeric instrumental section. Immediately after, the band left the stage to leave the main man to perform three solo songs. The first of these, “Beautiful Strangers,” was written in memory of the victims of Orlando and in support of the Everytown for Gun Safety lobby, to whom proceeds from the sale of a double-side single will go (see the link at the bottom of this piece). The song was genuinely moving as a simple and sincere plea for peace and understanding and delivered with grace: “If I die too young or if the gunmen come I’m full of love.”
“Black Flowers” followed with ringing guitar and enriched by Morby’s powerful baritone, while the mini-set was wrapped up with his cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place To Fall” – a song that has become a traditional closer to his live show. The whole band returned for two fast-paced encores, “Parade” and “The Ballad of Arlo Jones,” leaving a sated crowd in no doubt that they had witnessed an artiste whose early promise has matured to create a distinctive and individual voice.
Kevin Morby’s European tour continues through to 26th November. See the artiste’s Facebook page for venues. Singing Saw is available to buy on iTunes and “Beautiful Strangers” single can be downloaded from Bandcamp.
Photography by Ruth Geraghty for Best New Bands.
Tony’s great passion in life is music and nothing gives him more pleasure than unearthing good, original new music and championing independent musicians. His association with Best New Bands brings great opportunities for this. He also writes for Consequence of Sound and is a judge for Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition.
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