James Vincent McMorrow @ Bowery Ballroom, 9/9/11

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Last October, James Vincent McMorrow made his debut on American shores when opening for Bell X1 on their acoustic tour. Just under a year later, he’s gone from opening at Bowery Ballroom to being a headliner in his own right.

The first set of the evening came from Christopher Paul Stelling. With more than a passing resemblance to Damien Rice, he has likewise mastered the art of crafting songs with quiet intensity. From the etchings on his acoustic guitar to the beat he tapped out with his foot, it was clear that everything about his performance was on his own terms.  New Yorkers would be wise to keep an eye on this Brooklynite.

Next up was Marissa Nadler. She had a haunting voice and determination that cut through the noise that can gather in a room with a bar like Bowery’s. Her songs are beautiful and melodic, though her stage presence has some catching up to do. The tuning between songs caused enough of a lull to nearly lose the audience’s attention, though she did win it back time and again.

The last time McMorrow was in town, he was up against the same odds. That gamble obviously paid off as he took the stage with his six-piece band. The songs on his record Early in the Morning are filled with lush instrumentation, and with others joining him onstage, McMorrow is able to bring a new energy to his performance. There’s no ego here, just self-deprecating banter and a genuine appreciation for the fans who have brought this Irish singer back across the pond.

While McMorrow’s acoustic performances are always commanding, some songs truly benefitted from how a full band could shift melody into frenzy. “From the Woods!!” and “And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop” pushed McMorrow to shouting out lyrics, and “This Old Dark Machine” has a beautiful atmosphere that is made all the better with several people singing harmony. New Yorkers were also treated to two special covers. The first, Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” was a song that McMorrow had never played live before in spite of recording his rendition for a charity album. “Steve Winwood is a fucking genius,” McMorrow declared with a bit of mischief in his eyes since the blogosphere has been all too eager to call his cover “ironic” rather than a tribute to the original. The other cover, and McMorrow’s solo encore, was Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” on piano. It was a glimpse back at the stage presence McMorrow had shown earlier this year and last, when he alone took the stage and let his music speak for itself. Judging by the smiles and cheers at the end of the gig, his profile is only going to continue to grow in America.

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