Before the show, I was standing outside the theater and a man in his late 50s stopped and asked me, "What's this Bill Morrissey Band? What kind of music does he play?" So I explained it was folk-oriented with well-crafted lyrics and simple arrnagements, etc. He said, "OK, now I understand. I was trying to figure out why there were so many people of my age in line to get in."
The band consists of 3 backing musicians--bass, drums, and guitar/keyboards. The guitar/keyboards player is Michael Toles, who plays on Bill's new album, _You'll Never Get to Heaven_. The other 2 are from Berklee College of Music. I'm not sure of their names and I'm sure there's some serious misspelling here but it something like Dave Walchez on bass and Danny Mack on drums.
Everyone in the band played quite well. It was hard to believe that this was the second show and that they had just started rehearsing 3 days before. Except for a couple of songs, the performances were tight and the musicians knew their parts well. The show felt very "live" and dynamic--probably in part because of my anticipation, but there was a lot of enthusiasm in both the band and the audience.
They played a mix of old and new songs, though none off the first 2 albums. The arrangements are basically the same as on the albums, although sometimes played by different instruments (e.g., Toles' keyboards instead of Johnny Cunningham's fiddle on "Inside"), but with enough variation to make them interesting.
Among the older song, 2 were real stand-outs: "Sandy" and "Robert Johnson." The latter song is incredible, because even though Bill plays it at almost every show I attend, I am impressed with its strength every time. For this version, Toles plays both guitar and keyboards--not at the same moment, but he switches back and forth.
For the most part, the songs selected were ones that had multi-instrument arrangements on the original recordings. Bill did not, for example, take solo songs and turn them into band arrangements. He did, however, play "Birches," accompanied by just the bass. (And the bass line may have slowed the song down just a touch. Since the lyrics of "Birches" have so many images and observations for the listener to soak up, I prefer the slower performances of the song.)
The only song that didn't work that well for me was "Married for Money." I like this song a lot on the album and when Bill does it solo, but this night the hard-driving rhythm section overwhelmed the catchy tune that is carried by the vocals. The other new songs all came across well, and Toles' great guitar work handled most of the parts played by horns on the album.
A highlight for me came when he was called back for a second encore. They did "Different Currency," my favorite off the album. They hadn't rehearsed this much or planned to play it. There were some rough edges and Bill forgot a line, but it was also a moving, high-energy performance. At the end, where the record fades out, they kept playing for several more rounds, with Toles adding nice guitar variations to each musical verse.
A surprise guest last night was Bill's old friend and college roommate Cormac McCarthy, who did 2 songs solo and joined Bill to play harmonica on several others. (Alas, no "Marigold Hall.")
Here is the list of songs:
Main Bill Morrissey Page