By BRUCE DENNILL
James Morrison / Teatro, Fourways, Johannesburg
Without a big hit in current circulation, English singer-songwriter James Morrison’s appearance on South African stages this week might’ve seemed a bit odd to some. But Morrison has a new album out at the beginning of March, and it makes just as much sense for an artist to position themselves front of mind ahead of a release as it does to ride the momentum of established awareness when there’s a chart favourite in circulation.
This context did make for a slightly different mood in the auditorium, with fans shouting out the name of the songs they wanted to hear – often the singer’s early material, like his first single You Give Me Something, now 13 years old! Most of those favourites were included in the setlist (though the excellent Undiscovered was absent) and Morrison also took advantage of the moment to introduce – politely; he preceded each with an introduction including the words “Would you mind…?” – a number of new songs. Slowly and Power were two fresh offerings that already sit comfortably with the best of Morrison’s back catalogue.
Much of the set could better be defined by a consistent sound rather than particular highs or lows. This can be largely attributed to Morrison’s first-rate, unfussy backing band, all great soul players who combine to create a platform for the singer’s calling card – his expressive, gravel-strained, Rod Stewart-evoking voice.
A wonderful, unflappable rhythm section is augmented by a keys player on Hammond, Wurlitzer and Mellotron, a restrained electric guitarist and two confident, sassy backing singers. Morrison also plays guitar – acoustic – but either due to a sound glitch on the night or, more likely, a strategy where his limited strumming and picking is only in the mix to help him with tempo and pitch, that instrument was inaudible out in the audience. This was distracting for those watching Morrison’s chord changes and expecting to hear corresponding sounds, though just as many audience members might’ve appreciated the poses that Morrison was able to pull off with the instrument that would have looked a bit daft without it.
As a singer, Morrison commits to his performance in terms of tone, range and volume, but is somewhat more restrained between songs, his banter charming but not overly absorbing or sophisticated. He does have one great bit of dark humour, though. Introducing Wonderful World, a song he wrote after meeting a cheerful young deaf man on a bus, Morrison deadpans, “This one’s for him, even though he’ll never hear it.”
As a whole, Morrison’s first South African performance was competent and entertaining, but never thrilling.
Support act Stone Jets (a pop trio from Cape Town), gave an admirable account of themselves, with vocalist Given Nkanyane impressing all and sundry with the range and timbre of his voice and his intricate phrasing. As they scale up their show for future engagements in Teatro-sized venues, their impact will be even greater.