Kevin Morby @ Summerhall, 24 Aug
Like the mountains, fire, willows and coyotes that pop up time and again on his latest record, Kevin Morby has the appearance of a timeless literary symbol. Dressed in high waisted cotton trousers and a cowboy’s bolo tie, cloudy eyes obscured by sandy matted hair, he looks the archetypal lonely wanderer hopping between trains on the road to who knows where, acoustic guitar slung over the shoulder. But like his excellent album Singing Saw, tonight's performance exceeds pastiche – it’s too impassioned to sound cliché, and too immediate to sound tired.
While critics have hailed Singing Saw as Morby’s breakthrough, there’s evidently more legwork to be done on the PR front. There’s still plenty of space in Summerhall’s modest Dissection Room when his four-piece takes the stage, though as the drums kick in during opener Cut Me Down – a lackadaisical cut on record, here bursting with brio at each post-chorus interlude – it’s clear the few dozen of us who did catch wind are in for a treat.
Indeed, the rendition of Dorothy which follows would be best described as a showstopper were we not barely five minutes into the set. A heartfelt ode to friends, memories and music driven by a bluesy chug as old as time, it’s obvious crowd-pleasing material but it is nonetheless thrilling to hear the band make good on its potential. With the record’s epic supporting cast of instruments absent (including, sadly, the titular musical saw) we instead hear Megan Duffy’s guitar on the line “I could hear the piano play”, its glistening, faraway tone and Garcia-worthy esoteric flourishes making for an apt and evocative substitute.
Singing Saw provides the bulk of the set of the night’s entertainment and is impeccable throughout but Morby gives earlier material a look-in too, to varying degrees of success. The somewhat predictable Still Life cut All Of My Life is an unexpected highlight, its textbook chord progression passing as nothing short of iconic afloat the rising tide of his new work. The Ballad of Arlo Jones though, while played with gusto, is a disappointing closer; it dulls the magic a bit to hear a musician with such hallowed touchstones as Dylan, Cohen and Townes Van Zandt sign off sounding like a knock-off Arctic Monkeys circa Brianstorm.
Still, it’s an indisputable (if unnecessary) indicator of the emphatic step forward Morby has taken this year. Following two solid, if fairly unremarkable releases, he’s emerged as a distinctive voice greater than the sum of his influences. Tonight he plays with the hunger and confidence of a man out to make an impression, worth every bit of his self-mythologised persona.