James Vincent McMorrow: review

Barbican, London
When he sings in his natural register, he triumphs. Otherwise he's a knock-off Bon Iver

A bearded, balding man traverses a stage lit only by pyramidal white stalagmites. He teases sparse, plaintive tones from acoustic guitar and keyboard and wails in desolate falsetto about "freshly fallen snow" and love as cold as a glacier. A backing band howl misty choruses of lonesome wolf harmonies.

If your Bon Iver alarm isn't going off yet, change the batteries. With Justin Vernon hinting that he's hanging up his helium canister for good, Ireland's James Vincent McMorrow has ducked in as the recently-dumped falsetto folk warbler of choice, having built a rapt following with his 2010 debut Early In The Morning, and a wintry cover of Steve Winwood's Higher Love, last heard flogging LoveFilm. But his spacious, haunting textures, glitch-soul leanings and nervous appreciation at playing such a hallowed hall – right down to fluffing guitar lines because it's too dark onstage and his capo gets stuck – fail to affect at first, overshadowed by his aura of po-faced pastiche. Delivering Vernon facsimiles like The Lakes and Glacier with such concert hall import is like walking into the Louvre and trying to sell them the Mona Louisa.

Gradually, McMorrow's sorrow develops its own flavours. Down The Burning Ropes tackles the wispy urban funk of James Blake and The xx, and the title track to his second album Post Tropical - recorded in Iver-esque isolation on a Texan pecan farm – climaxes in huge crashes of horn and hellfire. When he drops into his natural register and rocks his way towards stately crescendos on We Don't Eat and Gold, he triumphs. Then, come the encore, he's solo at the mike, undoing all that good work by mournfully warbling: "In the forest, I make my home" as dots of light roll like tears down a paper backdrop moon. An impressive display JV, but get your own self-pitying back-story.


Mark Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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