Photographs by Katrina Lat.
Sold out weeks in advance, the James Vincent McMorrow show on the 14th was full and ready to go long before the opener walked on stage. That opener, Mustafa, is a local talent better known as a poet than a singer: “I’ve shared poetry around the world,” he said, “but this is my first time sharing my music.” After thanking James for being a mentor and inspiration, he launched into his set, and as a premiere performance it was a delight. The first song, “Who Was I Before You”, was a mournful ballad with hints of Keaton Henson in the lyricism. His past as a poet clearly plays a large role in his music with lines like “if my blood could speak, it would talk about the times it tried to leave me.” His voice breaks slightly on deep notes, betraying real emotion behind the well-crafted words. Speaking of words and poetry, most songs contain spoken word breaks that evoke Kendrick Lamar but from a different melodic territory. The next song “Holy Or Broken” seems the most polished of his material both in melody and vocals, playing to his strengths and higher register. There are moments in other songs where emotion and passion overtake the music but in this piece he keeps a balance while making expert use of falsetto. The moment of the night that most took my breath away was Mustafa’s tribute to Leonard Cohen, a cover of “Hallelujah.” More than the gesture, the song plays perfectly to the passion and emotion of his voice, quivers, breaks and all.
After a short break, Roy Ayer’s “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” began to permeate the room, playing out until a warm orange light descended onto the stage, James Vincent McMorrow and band with it. The first song was “Red Dust”, a strong bass beat and light backing vocals singing in lilting tones, “I need someone to love, I need someone to hold.” Though he’s drawn comparisons to artists like James Blake, McMorrow sets himself apart by bringing his backing vocal singers along with him rather than simply touting a recording, lending the performance the full sound it deserves. His vocals are stunning, even more so in person because you can see his mouth open, eyes scrunch up in emotion and focus, and are forced to believe that yes, that unbelievable falsetto is the unaltered product of this truly talented man. “I Lie Awake Every Night” showed a more soulful, less produced side of the music, drawing more attention to McMorrow’s vocals rather than a singular wall of sound.
The next song, “Last Story”, speaks to painful honesty and university experience all at once, even more impactful live. The backing band leaving the stage for a moment, McMorrow sang “Lost Angles” and “Higher Love”, both love letters that benefit from the intimacy of solo performances; both songs a conversation with the audience that often comes off as a question for some truth or meaning. A girl leaning against the front barrier held her hands together in front of her face as if in prayer, eyes fixed on him, the kind of sermon we need right now. Another girl smiled as tears ran down her face. Everywhere I looked, there was a sense of reverence, speaking to something angelic in his voice or perhaps his presence.
After the band returned to the stage, McMorrow introduced “Wicked Game” by telling the audience to “feel free to cry and dance, it’s how I spent most of my teenage years.” The song is indeed more upbeat with a rhythm you feel compelled to move to as he did on stage, bopping around as the audiences heads bobbed along. Some yelled out, “Toronto loves you, man”, to which he replied, “I can feel it.” By the next song, “Killer Whales”, the bobbing had evolved into full body movement across the venue. McMorrow’s dancing, too, fluctuates, dancing with his fist by his face during “One Thousand Times” like a boxer in defence mode, arms wild and fingers by his temples while singing fan favourite “Rising Water.” For this song, though, there is a break, a moment when the echoes of the words mix with the singing of the crowd and the intensity of his movement and song is split through by a smile. That moment where the joy and emotion broke through from the man beneath the noise was felt by everyone in the room, the girl in prayer at the barrier, the woman with tears running down her cheeks, me, and I’m thankful for it. James Vincent McMorrow’s singular sermon proved to be for me, and I’m sure the rest of that reverential space, just what I needed.