When it comes to Morby’s live show: just see it.
Chicago, IL 04-28-2018
When you’re recommending new music to a friend, most of the time you try and entice them by saying that it sounds like this or that singer or band, using the reference as a selling point. Sometimes, though, all you say is, “Just listen to it,” because the music itself is its own best argument. This is the case with Kevin Morby, and it is the case particularly when it comes to his live show: just see it.
At his concert Saturday night in Thalia Hall, his music–a revision and reinvention of folk and Southern rock mixed with a Lou Reed-like sensibility, a marriage of the sentimental and the streetwise–felt celebratory, uplifting and embracing. Morby’s own singing and guitar—and, on a few songs, keyboard—were rounded out by drums, bass, trumpet, along with back-up vocals and guitar courtesy of Meg Duffy, leader of the remarkable duo Hand Habits, who opened up for Morby. In addition to being an elegant songwriter with a powerful and moving voice, she is an impressive guitar playing who adds a lot to Morby’s own, more restrained style.
Half of the songs from 2017’s City Music made an appearance that night, including the title track, with its mantra-like lyrics: “Oh, that city music/ Oh, that city sound/ Oh, how you’re pulling my heart strings and/ Oh, let’s go downtown.” Another highlight was the Angel Olsen-esque “Crybaby,” with its subdued first-person verses switching to self-address on the chorus—“And you cried, crybaby/ Come on cry, crybaby,” part consolation, part rebuke to a hypersensitive soul slumming in a lonely city.
But the stand-out from City Music was “Aboard the Train,” a song that starts out with a muted “Be My Baby”-style pulse and ends with snarling guitar and Morby at his world-weary best, singing of time passing, the faces that change and the faces that don’t.
Throughout the night, the band played with a loose, confident feel that was as reminiscent of The Band in its evoking the wide-open feel of America’s highways and the intimacy of its rural seclusions as it was of the Velvet Underground, summoning the jittery energy of the country’s urban landscapes.
Elsewhere in the set, Morby also drew from his previous album, Singing Saw. On “Destroyer,” you can see how capable he is in conjuring an almost Biblical weight in slow-burning songs that never forsake their sense of closeness—myths in miniature. (This song in particular benefited from Duffy’s striking back-up vocals toward the end.)
But the highlight of the night, and in some ways Morby’s crowning achievement, was “Beautiful Strangers,” an extended rumination powered by acoustic guitar, minimal percussion, a Motown bassline and with six minutes of lyrics that bring together a constellation of Morbyan themes—longing, mystery, survival, faith, mortality, family, God. “If I die too young,” he sings on this song, “Let all that I’ve done be remembered.” Though he is barely 30, there were a few moments throughout the night that make one feel like this hope could really come true.
For now, it is enough to bear witness to a beguiling songwriter who makes you feel like you’re somehow part of his family—even when his mother and father are in the audience.