On checking tickets the venue staff gave each member of the audience a card requesting that they respect each other and the musicians by keeping noise to a minimum. That this advice was followed to the letter didn’t come from the management, it came purely from the sheer captivation John Moreland exerted over his audience.
Moreland cut a looming presence as he took the stage. A brief Cash-like introduction, “I’m John Moreland”, and he let his music do the talking. Apart from thanks after each song and for coming out on a Tuesday that was it until the end. It wasn’t a particularly long set either but the effect was little short of mesmerising. In a packed club in the middle of a hot and thronging London, we were taken to Moreland’s world. This was a place far bigger and emptier where you can see the sky for miles. That means lots of room for contemplating deep emotions, much of which revolved around love and sadness.
Over the past few years Moreland has been compared to many great artists; Springsteen (as in Nebraska) is one, others are Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt. These are valid and big names, but Moreland is a completely original. His albums have become progressively more complex musically, last year’s Big Bad Luv is the best yet but the purest shot of Moreland comes when, as for tonight’s show, he is just acoustic. His only accompaniment was support John Calvin Abney, an artist of high quality in his own right, who complemented Moreland perfectly.
On the face of it, Moreland’s songs have an almost uniform bleakness, verging on hopelessness. But that’s to miss the point; most of the time Moreland isn’t fighting against anything or taking sides. Instead, in his rueful manner he shrugs and tells it as it is. He is deeply personal, talking directly to everyone there, about lost love, what might have been, and above all, acceptance. He is confessional but there’s no sense of having wiped the slate to start afresh. On he goes in this swirling mass of emotion, but in the most lucid way imaginable.
The very first song, ‘Sallisaw Blue’, a rollicking stormer that opens the new album, had almost more power when stripped down to two acoustic guitars, Abney’s harmonica and Moreland’s voice. Named after a town in Oklahoma, it was an emphatic way to introduce yourself, “I don’t own anything, you don’t know shit/ With your bloodshot eyes giving my black heart fits/ There’s a neon sign that says ‘Big Bad Luv’/And a noose hanging down from the heavens above.”
Also from Big Bad Luv, ’Old Wounds’ gave more than a hint of what Moreland considers merits a song, “And we’ll open up old wounds in celebration/If we don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song”. ‘Lies I Chose to Believe’ reveals some of the hope that emerges from the album. Again, it’s very personal arising from his recent marriage. “But I think too much and wait too long/ And I never tell but you know/ How to lift me when I sink too low”.
Moreland also went back to his earlier, particularly bleak, songs. ‘American Flags In Black & White’ from 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat. It’s steady pace stretches out like a midwest highway and you can almost feel, “Yesterday’s a blade sharp as ever”. ‘Cherokee’ is plain desperation and can there be anything more personal than a song called ‘You Don’t Care For Me Enough To Cry’, his pain and self-loathing not shared by her?
Moreland’s voice is an instrument as finely tuned as his guitar. If the emotions on each song share a common theme, he squeezes the last drop of feeling out of every single one, line by line.
Likewise In The Throes plumbed these depths further. ‘3:59am’ is a soliloquy as lonely as the hour then Moreland bared his soul further in ‘I Need You To Tell Me Who I Am’, “Well babe, I’m afraid I lost it before you knew I had it/ I only wanted one thing and I put my faith in magic/ I threw my love into the ocean and I found it in the sand/ I need you to tell me who I am”. Encore, ‘Break My Heart Sweetly’ summed it all up perfectly.
In an age of mass-produced music made to a formula sold under any name you care to mention, John Moreland’s songs are completely hand crafted. Every single one.