John Moreland Live At The Ark: Ann Arbor, MI
John Moreland doesn’t say much when he hits a stage. He simply sits down and plays his songs. For a songwriter like Moreland, this is his hello, his goodbye, and everything in between. And as an audience member, you’re all the better for it.
At first glance, Moreland is a formidable figure. He’s large, with tattoos that carve a landscape across his arms, hands, and skull. His past is hardcore punk. He has a beard that could just as easily belong in a biker bar as a folk club. However, as anyone who has seen him live knows, when he opens his mouth to sing, there is no question that he belongs right where he is.
Moreland opened the night with “Sallisaw Blue,” the first track off of his latest release, Big Bad Luv. With its wailing harmonica and heavy blues strumming, it represents the bluesier, rock n roll edge of the new album as a whole. If 2013’s In The Throes was Moreland’s Nebraska, Big Bad Luv is his Copperhead Road. The Earle influence was hard to miss on Tuesday night as Moreland leaned back into the honky-tonk rhythm of “Ain’t We Gold,” a dirty rocker, but with all the affecting and dichotomous lyrics he’s known for: “Looking so hard that you can’t see the picture/A number with a magic touch/Throwing gold bricks through a rich man’s window/Tragic when it don’t add up.” Overall, there is a lighter, almost playful feel to this new record. One that, with the addition of multi-instrumentalist John Calvin Abney to Moreland’s usual one-man act, adds an extra dimension and jam-like feel to his live show. Somewhere between older and wiser and fuck it, Moreland exudes a forgiveness of himself and the world around him that is absent from his previous efforts. These new songs seem to take a breath, roll down the windows, and even dance their way into new territory for the songwriter. “Amen, So Be It” and “Slow Down Easy” are standout easy rockers as on the latter he sings, “Slow down easy, I’ve been hauling a heavy soul/And don’t you know, honey it’s time/Slow down easy, so much trouble got a heavy toll/Take my hand, won’t you be mine.”
Like the “Oklahoma” emblazoned across his knuckles, the heartland is as embedded in John Moreland’s work as it is on his skin. The old adage says to write what you know and what he knows is how to put to music all of the loneliness and lives of quiet desperation that play out in those areas of the country where the sky is a little bigger, and make it universal. A true stunner of the night was the Springsteen-esque “Lies I Chose To Believe.” Against the backdrop of barely audible picking, Moreland’s clear, yet rust tinged voice held the crowd in rapt silence as he sang, “Let’s float these gutters up past heaven’s gate/Get me out of these damn desert states/Did you hear the one about the hand of fate?/It’ll make your heart stop.” Like the Instagram worthy cover of the new album, Moreland is combining the old and the new with great effect. For fans of his previous albums, his live show still contains all of the arresting, “collar blind,” we’re-all-in-the-gutter-looking-at-the-stars profundity. For Moreland, it seems to be a study in unchartered territory within himself and his songwriting. The idea of love in particular is a somewhat new subject for the recently married 32 year old songwriter. Not lost love, not unrequited love, or love gone wrong, but simply love. It may have taken him until the last verse of the final song on the album and it was late in the night when he played it, but in “Latchkey Kid” the forgiveness of self that marks the album finally allows Moreland to write about L word in the present tense: “Cause I’ve found a love that shines into my core/And I don’t feel the need to prove myself no more/And when I look into the mirror, now I see/A man I never knew that I could be.”
On his sophomore album, Moreland sings “nobody gives a damn about songs anymore.” An irony that is immediately apparent from even a cursory listen to his catalog. Because John Moreland cares. He cares a lot. He cares so much that, in a genre that can easily become formulaic and prosaic, he chooses to keep writing and evolving. The world of Americana has long been an asylum for refugees of punk and rock n roll and Big Bad Luv is the perfect statement of where Moreland has been and where he’s headed. He may still be big and bad, but he’s letting a little love in these days too.
John Moreland is currently on the road to support his latest album, Big Bad Luv. For a list of tour dates, visit his website at: johnmoreland.net.