James Vincent McMorrow: The Irish Bard Plays the Bimah

James+Vincent+McMorrow+JVM18I’m Jewish and a DC native, but this was my first time visiting Sixth & I.  The historic synagogue opened in 1908 and spent 51 years as a Methodist church before being restored and reopened as a 21st century Jewish community center of sorts in 2004.  Today, it plays host to comedians, musicians, and other performers, as often gentile as they are Jewish.

I decided to make my first trip for purely non-religious reasons.  James Vincent McMorrow was playing, an artist described by more than one publication as “the Irish Bon Iver,” and I’m a big fan.  McMorrow went to New York and then Coachella in the days after playing Sixth & I, but on a warm April night, a friend and I saw him in a show more intimate than those could ever be.

Stepping into the building from I street, it felt as though I’d entered any other religious or civic center with a small and uninteresting reception area distinguished only by the presence of a makeshift beer and wine bar.  My friend and I grabbed a drink and walked up the flight of stairs into the main sanctuary.  Stained glass windows lined one wall, and an eerie, hazy light filtered through them into the auditorium from the street.  Numbered pews faced a raised stage with balcony seating providing the feel of a concert venue, but a large menorah flickering to the side refusing to fully complete the image.

Glen Hansard, best known from the movie Once, wouldn’t be a bad superficial comparison for James Vincent McMorrow.  They’re both bearded Irishmen with a deeply emotional, lyrics-driven catalogue.  However, McMorrow’s voice is a tool entirely his own.  Like Justin Vernon, McMorrow lives within the falsetto, but he pushes his voice and volume further than Vernon to both his detriment and his triumph.  In many ways, he reminds me of the other geniuses of the falsetto who have been among my lasting favorites: Jeff Buckley, Andrew Bird, and Freddie Mercury come to mind.

When McMorrow and his three countrymen stepped on stage after a stirring acoustic culmination to opener Aidan Knight’s set, they seemed nervous.  They didn’t go right for their most popular songs.  The house was packed with a young crowd, many of whom had clearly never been to Sixth & I either.  Most concerning of all, the band didn’t seem like they had played together for long or formed much chemistry – a suspicion I later had confirmed.

But then they got a feel for the place.  A light show kicked in behind them.  It grabbed attention, with a textured screen and series of amorphous, slowly pulsing video projections.  The band picked up their pace, and McMorrow began to unleash.  He started hitting his best material, and reminded fans that it’s unbelievable how many solid songs he has on only two albums.  The audience had clearly been won over as well, finally getting in a groove with the alternating pattern of material from Post Tropical, McMorrow’s most recent album, and his first, Early in the Morning.

The band closed out their main set with “Cavalier,” a highlight and personal favorite from Post Tropical, before leaving McMorrow to break out a soulful solo cover of Steve Winwood’s 80’s jam, “Higher Love.”  Applause rained in, McMorrow took his bow, and then performed the shortest encore break in history, barely letting the doors close behind him.  He came back by himself and played “And If My Heart Should Somehow Stop,” bringing his voice louder with each chorus.  The soft-spoken guy, who described himself as doing “a poor job of looking like a lumberjack,” then told a story about feeling guilty for sleeping in and not getting to see much of DC.

The rest of the band came trotting out shortly after for their finale.  They hit their stride immediately, carrying over from where they left off before the intermission, and nailed the Mumford and Sons style build-up on “If I Had a Boat.”  The house (of worship) erupted in applause, and the band said their goodbyes.

I was left behind with images of “eight crazy, happy Irishmen” cruising the monuments on bright red Capital Bikeshares, as McMorrow triumphantly decided on stage they would be doing after the show.  Though he may not be the best at counting — there were only three other people in the band — there’s no doubt he can play, and with a few more albums as quality as his first two, I’ll be there to see him.

Listen to a clip Max recorded from the show:


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