I'm a man who likes to think he has his finger on the musical pulse of the nation but I have to admit I'd never heard of this guy before a friend recommended him. The rest of the Brighton Festival was its usual mix of pretentious guff and obscure "art" masquerading as "entertainment" so it was a nice attempt to inject a palatable bit of culture into the diet.
With his debt album Early In the Morning only released last year the only sign the beardy Dubliner's head had risen above the musical parapet was his cover of Steve Winwood's Higher Ground getting airplay on the Lovefilm adverts.
It seems I'm not the only one new to the McMorrow experience as judging by the empty seats booking the 1800 seater Dome for this show seemed to be a bit on the optimistic side. Not just that but all seater gigs shouldn't work. It's like expecting people to wear black tie to a waterpark. It just feels wrong. Despite these pitfalls McMorrow turns out a performance of spine-tingling proportions that he described on Twitter as
"One of my favourite shows of all time"
McMorrow's harmonious melancholy enters the conciousness at the right time coming as it does in the wake of Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Noah and The Whale and Mumford and Sons who have created something of a Nu-folk scene in last couple of years. It has be said that McMorrow inhabits the quieter side of the folk spectrum.
His emotionally fragile songs have a quiet knack of reducing the crowd to an awed silence. During Follow Me Down To The Red Oak Tree, Hear The Noise That Moves So Soft and Low and We Are Ghosts you can literally hear a pin drop in the audience.
Whilst a respectful silence pervades during the songs to the point where people don't even sing along for risk of disrupting the harmonies, McMorrow attracts a certain kind of devotee, one who wants to declare their undying love for him at every gap in the songs. One woman starts to have a personal conversation during the set is if McMorrow is playing alone to her in her front room.
She is determined to dance to his songs even though McMorrow warns her they are a bit downbeat and don't have much of a "tempo". In the end he offers her the diplomatic,
"Do as your heart desires"
before jokingly asking for security to escort her from the premises. You've got to love Brighton's resident posse of drug-addled nutcases.
He kicks off with the upbeat Sparrow and the Wolf whose rousing chorus could be a track off Mumford and Sons Sigh No More only substituting banjo for mandolin.
For fans of harmonies, McMorrow's set is a treat, during And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop the talented band engage in some beautiful four part harmonies with McMorrow's keening falsetto gilding the lily. And what an fantastic falsetto it is, recalling Prince, Neil Young and Sam Sparro its soulfulness offset by the predominantly folksy backdrop.
There are flavours of Nashville with bar room piano on Breaking Hearts and slide guitar On if I Had A Boat that recall dusty mining saloons of a bygone American wild west, the latter reaching a lung-busting crescendo. McMorrow's atmospheric songs make perfect soundtrack fodder.
With a bandage on his finger McMorrow warns the crowd they may get an unexpected jazz version of Higher Love as he is may be a bit cack handed on the keyboard. He mentions Tyler James' cover on The Voice and jokingly not getting a name check even though the song was originally recorded by Steve Winwood. It is note perfect and gets the loudest cheer of the night.
If the pace had been somewhat sedate until this point McMorrow proves he can "do" tempo where he quickens pulses for an instant as he belows out a warning in the coda in From The Woods!! and then morphs the blue-eyed soul of We Don't Eat into an unexpected thumper with dual drum kits that betray McMorrows roots as a rock drummer.
For the encore Mcmorrow ditches the band and we get an unual choice of cover of Bloodbuzz Ohio which McMorrow
"just felt like playing"
by fellow beardies The National. It is completely stripped down from the bombastic original and is the only misfire of the night.
He finishes off with Early in the morning. which to me sounds like a long lost school hymn with its multilayered harmonies and simple melody here performed by the entire band. Truly beautiful.
The album on which McMorrow plays all instruments and recorded all vocals is a must listen and if there is any justice in the world when word gets out empty seats at his gigs will be a thing of the past.
Sparrow and the Wolf
And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop
Follow Me Down To The Red Oak Tree
Hear The Noise That Moves So Soft And Low
We Are Ghosts
Down The Burning Ropes
From the woods!!
We Don't Eat
This Old Dark Machine
If I Had Boat
Early In The Morning