James Vincent McMorrow at the GOH
Belfast Festival: James Vincent McMorrow, The Staves
Grand Opera House, Belfast
23rd October 2011
It's been a long, long year for James Vincent McMorrow. He wears it in his eyes. You can hear the exhaustion in his voice, and the rickety piano stool, that's been with him as he went from being a relatively unknown Dublin singer-songwriter, to an engaging theatre filling anthem maker, has taken one hell of a battering.
From a strictly medical standpoint, (though this reviewer is far from having any relevant qualifications) it's safe to assume McMorrow is running on a mixture of fumes, momentum and sheer awe at what he's achieved in the last 12 months.
As he pointed out on stage, he played what he thought was his pinnacle performance at Whelan's at the tail end of 2010, and now he was standing in front of a sold-out captive audience in the sumptuous surroundings of the Grand Opera House after just playing two similarly jammed-packed shows at the Olympia, Dublin.
His rise has been both in part down to the release of the fantastic album Early In The Morning, and also his gloriously intimate, engaging and memorable performances.
McMorrow's music works so well because of how he lures you into his narrative. His songs are vivid stories about heartbreak, family and faith. It's hard not to be biographical, it's almost impossible to not imagine him living out his own stories. For that reason, the live experience feels like you're listening to his deepest secrets.
And he couldn't have picked a more fitting place than the Grand Opera House, to act this out. As he exclaimed in surprise: "This venue is gorgeous. I thought the Olympia was nice, but my word. Just look at this place”.
He was joined on stage by his touring band, a 6-piece of very talented, versatile musicians and throughout the night flitted between a very grand, rich sound and also several solo numbers. With a soft, delicate voice and a singing voice to match, he was luckily rewarded with an equally quiet and respectful crowd. Can we start putting more gigs on in this place?
Most importantly for this performance, he had taken the previous months to properly gel with his band. Two months before, having experimented with some "new tech" on stage at Electric Picnic, technical hitch was followed by technical hitch. With what must feel like a lifetime of gigs between then and now, the night passed without fault.
The packed to capacity theatre was treated to Early In The Morning in almost its entirety. Sparrow and the Wolf, Follow You Down to the Red Oak Tree, were followed by his sweet rendition of Steve Winwood's 80's ballad 'Higher Love', plus an absolutely sublime cover of Chris Isaak's Wicked Game. His stage manner was also endearing. Constantly musing on his recent rise in fame, he openly let us into his agonies of dealing with being a bigger artist than he planned. "I tried having two guitars, so I didn't keep having to stop mid-set to drop a D", he told us, "I tried it for a night and gave up. Not for me”.
Later, as he again stopped to tune his guitar, he wondered: "This is a real beautiful room, does anyone know the history of it?"
The highlight of the night came with the introduction of 'We Don't Eat' and 'From the Woods' which set the scene and tempo for 'If I Had A Boat' which was almost orchestral, filling the opera house from the stalls, through the boxes to the gods. The night finished as it started, with the slow paced 'Early in the Morning, I'll Come Calling'. He bid us a good night, thanked us for our time and promised to come back.
It was a special night for those there, and a marker in what has already been an accomplished short career for McMorrow. Who knows where he'll go from here, but one thing his for certain, he'll try his best to keep his modest, talented feet on the ground.
The Grand Opera House is a theatre in Belfast, Northern Ireland, designed by the most prolific theatre architect of the period, Frank Matcham. It opened on 23 December 1895. According to the Theatres Trust the "magnificent auditorium is probably the best surviving example in the United Kingdom of the oriental style applied to theatre architecture" - Wikipedia