James Vincent McMorrow September 17, 2011 Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
With melodies both delicate and imposing, Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow is one of the most surprising and unsurpassable voices of this year. His story is frequently compared to our favorite Eau Claire neighbor, Bon Iver. Having recorded his album in a small one room house by the sea, over the course of five months, the emotionally oozing, organic, and downright soulful break-out album, Early in the Morning evokes sounds both quiet and grand.
Gimme Noise had the opportunity to speak with James Vincent McMorrow backstage at the Cedar prior to taking to the stage. With his elusive expressions and notable introversion, James Vincent McMorrow is everything one would expect from his music - soft-spoken, humble, yet unafraid to stand up for himself.
With many critics drawing ties between McMorrow and Justin Vernon, he started out by sharing his view on all of the publicity surrounding their likenesses.
"It's kind of boring really; it's incredibly lazy journalism, its short sided journalism," he said. "I mean, he made this beautiful record, existed for him for a reason. And he went and made it the way he made it because that's what he wanted to do and it's the same with me. I could care less about how he made, or why he made it - I just heard it and I knew it was a nice record. And when I wanted to make my record and the only place I could make it was where I made it. The fact is, I did make it a certain way that's not done every day, and the fact that he made it the same way, and the fact that we both like to sing high [laughing] people like to compare, and it's kind of boring."
When asked if he ever finds it difficult to perform his songs in front of large numbers of people, because some of them come from such a lonesome place, McMorrow replies, "No, no I don't. I kind of thrive on it actually. It's like... trying to communicate songs is my job now. I relish in it. I love it, there is no sense of being like 'oh no I can't sing a song because...' the songs were written over a year and a half ago, and recorded. Then after that you just kind of draw a line in the sand, and I have to do my job now, and I have to go communicate these songs to people. I do the best I can, and I try and make it so people haven't left a show and think they hadn't felt anything for the songs, than I would give up."
Lastly, McMorrow took some time to reflect on his relationship with the craft of songwriting. "I don't know, songwriting is really kind of vague thing for me," he said. "I would never see a tree, and write about a tree... So I mean why would I be in a relationship and sing about a relationship, in an annoying sense? It's real opaque; I write words on a page, journals. I keep journals and notepads, I just write stuff and it translates to songs. Even when they're done I don't really know what they mean. It's so vague, and I'm an abstract writer anyway, so yeah, they affect it - my relationships, with friends with everybody, they feedback into my songwriting. I couldn't tell you how anything specifically affects my songwriting at all; I just know that it does. It's just an instinct."
McMorrow brought that instinctual songwriting to the Cedar Cultural Center this past Saturday evening on what many were cataloging "A perfect autumn evening in Minnesota." It's hard to believe that we could set a backdrop that would make it even better, but alas, the five-piece band backing James Vincent McMorrow turned September 17 into a perfect soundtrack with all their parts in the right place: drums, mandolin, keys, bass, acoustic and electric guitar. In their the heavily diluted Irish accents, McMorrow and his band couldn't stop commenting on how much they enjoyed the venue, the audience, and the infamous marquee outside displaying their names.
The completely sold-out show clearly struck something in McMorrow, his appreciation and respect for his fans immediately noted. A few hoots and hollers from the crowd approved the admiration, and the band was on their way. Opening the set with "Sparrow and the Wolf," a quickly dispersed picking of the strings on his acoustic guitar brought the audience straight to their feet. The room shook from tapping feet and vibrations from the bass drum, and McMorrow's energy and mystique surrounded the stage, seeping into every word he sang. It was obvious from the start that it was going to be an exceptional show.
Breaking right into the second song, "And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop" - the loveliest love track off of Early in the Morning -- McMorrow poured his sweet, subtle falsetto into each note, and you could almost feel people getting closer throughout the audience.
McMorrow's story might have gotten him some notable press, but as the saying goes - 'Don't judge a book by its cover.' His live show greatly surmounts his recorded album. There is an energy and expression in James which is penetrating in his live performance. He performed his entire album, with highlights including "This Old Dark Machine," "Breaking Hearts," "From the Woods," and the much anticipated performance of "We Don't Eat." The familiar 89.3 hit "If I Had a Boat" not surprisingly got the greatest arousal of the crowd. Most of the audience sang along, and drew no silence as the song came to an end. On his solo/acoustic performance of "Down the Burning Ropes," McMorrow's falsetto went so high, one would suspect he was wearing some very tight trousers; it was almost unbelievable, but fantastically mesmerizing.
Closing out the set with an encore, McMorrow stood alone on the dimly lit stage, tuning his guitar. The audience sat waiting to hear the hook, and once recognized fans looked as if they had never heard the song before. It was a much unsuspected cover of a familiar, yet classic hit from the '90s: Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game." However, it was as if no one had ever heard it quite like this. McMorrow's falsetto and tender soul peeled the song apart, layer by layer. Before he could even finish, the crowd was eagerly applauding, breathless and haunted.
Personal Bias: I've enjoyed James Vincent McMorrow since his album first came out last year. I however wish he would have played his cover of Steve Windwood's "Higher Love"
The Crowd: Very young, to very old. It seems there is no demographic for a great Irish folk singer.
Overheard in the crowd: "It's COMPLETELY sold-out!"
Random Notebook Dump: It seemed as though fans wished for more sons, but alas, only the one album...
Random Notebook Dump 2: The night started with opener Marissa Nadler. All the way from Boston, with a velvety voice and her similarly delicate guitar musings, she enveloped the hall of the Cedar. It was as if Kate Nash and Gillian Welch embodied the young singer. Marissa Nadler certainly met the desires of the audience, if not compellingly exceeded them.