all words: Jeb Gavin, all photos: Joy Asico
Wednesday night, James Morrison brought his pleasant, low key version of blue-eyed British soul to the 9:30 Club, and I really wanted this to be a great show. I’ve enjoyed each of his albums, and figured his live show would be the same lush, expanse of pop-soul. Instead, this was milquetoast at best. Actually, milquetoast is the exact word to describe it.
The saccharine sweetness of the songs was mitigated by Morrison at his douche-iest. At first, I was hoping for a decent show. The band came on stage and started up with a solid little groove, setting up James to come out like James Brown on the TAMI Show. Instead of a scruffy, earnest guy, he walked out looking like a cross between 1988 George Michael and whatever the British equivalent of the guys from the Jersey Shore
are (possibly the same thing?)
He proceeded to struggle through the set, nervously explaining song after song to the audience as though he’d never been on stage before. Often times, he looked desperate to win the audience to his side, like they hadn’t paid money to see him play his own songs. He paced in place and routinely stated how much he loved DC, again unnecessarily.
This was all in stark contrast to the band itself. Aside from the youthful exuberance the guitarist and bassist showed, everyone else was on point, though seemingly disinterested in the music they were playing. The keyboardist and bassist both looked to be in the groove, but bored any time Morrison opened his mouth to speak. Worst of all the two backup singers outstripped the lead every time they had occasion, no matter how they tried to throttle it back. James dueted with both ladies on different songs, and each time he struggled while they soared through each number respectively.
The audience didn’t seem to care any which way, though they didn’t seem too aware that what they were listening to wasn’t soul, but some sort of ersatz approximation. Towards the end of one song, the band teased “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and the audience reacted as though they screwed up. It occurred to me, this isn’t soul, but that’s not the problem. No one seemed to care this wasn’t soul, now that’s a problem. I don’t care what you listen to, it’s a personal choice. Cram cream cheese in your ears for all I care. But soul music is a raw sonic expression of emotion: love or hate, attraction or revulsion, need or want. This is an expression of one man whining about something. These days it doesn’t seem to matter what. If soul music is sex, this feels like someone angrily masturbating in front of a mirror while a thousand people watch. It’s a marvel people enjoyed it, and yet there I was in a room full of them.