I had never heard of James Vincent McMorrow when I saw him open for Bell X1 back in October of 2010. But as you can see from my review of that night, I needed to know everything about his music once he started performing. It was one of those opening sets where someone new to you leaves you astonished and an instant fan and supporter. So it was especially cool to get the chance to see McMorrow at the exact same venue, on the exact same stage he first blew me away on when he returned to The Ark in Ann Arbor, this time as a headliner.
When he opened for Bell X1, "Early In The Morning" was not yet out in the States so I had to wait for this incredible album to wind up in my hands when it came out here early last year. It went on to land at #5 in my Best of 2011 list, but McMorrow's U.S. tour dates have not included Michigan again until now. The 45 minute drive to Ann Arbor on a Wednesday night was no obstacle, this was a must-see show for me, I think that much of McMorrow's talents.
Ann Arbor's own Abigail Stauffer opened the night with a solo acoustic set. Stauffer played songs from her 2011 album "Alone To Dream", a collection of acoustic-based folk/pop. This was my first exposure to her music and it is very solid material and she has a wonderful voice that suits her songs well. She also had a great stage presence, very funny, warm personality and that goes a long way in connecting with an audience. She was obviously thrilled to be opening for McMorrow.
I wasn't sure if this would be a solo set or if McMorrow's touring band would be joining him but the spare stage set-up answered that quickly. And much like my first encounter with James Vincent McMorrow's music, that is really all that is needed. Just him, an acoustic guitar and that VOICE. As soon as he took the stage and started with "Ghosts", a new song to me, currently only available as an iTunes bonus track, I was once again captivated. His vocals, his melodies and lyrics just hold your attention like only the best singer-songwriters can. And his obvious appreciation for where these songs have taken him in the last two years, all over the world in front of everything from intimate venues like The Ark to huge festival crowds, endears you.
McMorrow's between song banter was sometimes goofy, sometimes rambling, but always funny. He mentioned it was more nerve-racking playing small shows like this as opposed to the big festival shows, but he warmed to the crowd quickly and his comfort level was obvious a couple songs in. We certainly were spoiled when it came to the setlist as well as all but one of the songs off his debut album were played, the only exception being "Early In The Morning, I'll Come Calling". "Down The Burning Ropes" was especially a stunner, as was "From The Woods!!". Hell, what wasn't?
The main set also included a cover of Antony and The Johnsons "Hope There's Someone", as well as another non-album track, "Red Dust". This is also available as an iTunes bonus track, but he mentioned it was planned for the second full length album he is working on and I hope this remains true. The ending portion of the song with him pleading 'Sometimes my hands, they don't feel like my own. I need someone to love, I need someone to hold', had the audience in the palm of his hand. The main set closed with an off-mic performance of "If I Had A Boat", as he sang and played it sans microphone to the small room, another unique moment.
After a huge round of applause McMorrow returned for the encore, and from the chatter around me the expectation was it would be his much-loved cover of Steve Winwood's "Higher Love". But he explained and apologized that there was no piano available to him at the venue and that is how he usually performs that song so he instead would play another 80's cover he was in love with and hoped the audience would like it equally. This instantly had me hoping it would be his jaw-dropping version of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" and sure enough, that is exactly how he closed the night. His version of the song is my favorite track on his recent "We Don't Eat EP", so I was absolutely thrilled to see it performed live. A perfect ending to a truly memorable concert.
The Ark asks for no flash photography during shows so I was only able to snap a couple pictures to share here. But with James Vincent McMorrow, the emphasis is on the music and there are few folk singer/songwriters doing it better.