BY ROBERT LARSON
James Vincent McMorrow dazzled a captive audience at First Avenue on Thursday night.
McMorrow’s sophomore album, “Post Tropical,” departed far from his indie-folk under-produced debut. On “Post Tropical,” McMorrow’s R&B, soul and hip-hop influences manifested in a series of multilayered atmospheric compositions. The album does not lend itself well to a start-to-finish listen, and McMorrow’s live show was similarly lacking in dramatic arc. The set was defined by fits and starts, building crescendo after crescendo from ambient synth-laden soundscapes penetrated by McMorrow’s imposing falsetto.
That being said, a live show does not need the dramatic arc that an album needs to succeed. McMorrow’s set found its center through the use of glowing pyramids and a circular projection screen mounted behind the band. The pyramids populated the stage in three rows of descending height, jutting out of the floor like daggers. The band navigated this otherworldly landscape with uncanny grace, as if they had hailed from a faraway land where such geological features are commonplace. When they lit up with warm hues they looked like bonfires. When they glowed blue or green they shone with alien mystique.
McMorrow opened with “The Lakes,” the second track on “Post Tropical.” The band immediately established musical credibility with flawless four-part vocal harmonies. At times, their voices resonated with a rich orchestral timbre. Their technical ability needed no further questioning, but the jury was still out on how well they could interpret McMorrow’s melancholy pieces on stage.
The set rolled on through “Hear The Noise” and “Glacier” without incident, but hit an early peak with “Red Dust.” McMorrow’s powerful falsetto submerged the room as he repeated “I need someone to hold” with all possible aplomb. Under the intense red of a spotlight, McMorrow assumed the guise of a specter rallying the audience around the haunting chorus. The room reverberated with solidarity from McMorrow’s piercing requiem.
Most of the set repeated the formula of ambience, buildup and crescendo. McMorrow interspersed guitar heavy tracks from his first record, “Early In The Morning,” with the piano and synth-heavy songs from “Post Tropical.” McMorrow did a great job of demonstrating his penchant for musical texture and color. Layers of synths, guitar, piano and vocals blended seamlessly. Guitar chords were struck as cymbals crashed in an aggressively pleasant kind of way. At times, three keyboards simultaneously delivered a completely intuitive blend of musical textures. McMorrow’s voice ran through them like water.
Throughout the show, McMorrow’s preoccupation with texture manifested on the circular projection screen. Small geodesic sections were placed over the screen, as if they had been hastily torn off of Disney’s Epcot dome and carefully arranged on the screen. Various patterns were projected onto the screen throughout the course of the show that accompanied the stage lights and pyramids. More than once, lights revolved around the screen to mimic the rising and setting of the Sun. The band succeeded in combining all of those elements to create complex and distinct moods throughout the performance.
McMorrow maintained a lighthearted rapport with the crowd, at one point playfully insulting Garth Brooks, who was playing at the Target Center the same night. “My first ever show was Garth Brooks,” he said. He recalled the theatrics of Garth Brooks’ performance from his childhood memories. Apparently it involved lasers and Garth Brooks climbing a rope ladder. “He’s probably got some pretty baller shit over there,” McMorrow said. But not as baller as glowing pyramids and a massive circle. “This is way better than Garth Brooks,” he said, which was met with cheers and laughter from the crowd.
The show closed with three songs, all of which have loud, cathartic outros. “We Don’t Eat,” arguably his biggest hit, and “Gold” both felt like endings. By the time “Cavalier” came around to close the show, its thunder was stolen. It only took about two minutes of raucous applause for McMorrow to come back out for an encore. He played “And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop” unplugged to “reconnect with the room, or some philosophical bullshit like that.” The audience listened with perfect silence. He busted out a new song, “When I Leave,” which was noticeably distinct from the rest of the set, and closed with the fan favorite, “If I Had a Boat.”
McMorrow’s show, although it suffered from a tumultuous alternation of ambience and crescendo, satisfied a wide range of musical taste buds. The packed audience at First Avenue left with smiles on their faces and music in their ears. McMorrow’s falsetto is one that could travel over mountains, or at the very least, back home with all who heard it.