photo by Victor Valle

photo by Victor Valle


Shows that are meant to break your soul and patch it back together are tough for a crowd on a Friday night. You want to joke with your friends and unwind after a week of presumably hard work, the bar in the back boasts drink specials, and Saturday morning wouldn't be Saturday morning if you didn't sleep through the farmer's market yet again. But the last Friday night of Noise Pop at Inner Richmond's Neck of the Woods was an acoustic singer / songwriter affair with chairs set out for the lucky early birds. It was meant to be intimate, but the friction between the bar crowd talking over each other and the performers was palpable. Until John Moreland stepped onstage.

Let me preface all this by saying Friday was my third time seeing John Moreland play, and he always plays to a hushed room. Travis Hayes — who opened the night with his own acoustic narrative of "getting your shit together" and the encroaching question of settling down — had opened for Moreland two years ago at The Night Light to a much smaller crowd. Lilly Hiatt, Moreland's tour support, was the Nashville firecracker who cracked jokes and played songs like "Jesus Would Have Let Me Pick The Restaurant."

When Moreland stepped on-stage, an impatient voice from the back yelled, "OK, now time to listen!" And we did. He began by quietly greeting us with a "Hey, ya'all" and then playing "Hang Me In The Tulsa County Stars," the first track off of his most recent album, High on Tulsa Heat. At the end of that first song came thunderous cheers, an almost comical contrast from how disruptive they'd been while Lilly Hiatt played.

Moreland was raised in Boone County, Kentucky and Tulsa, Oklahoma, the latter of which is where he now lives when not touring. The Midwest (or my personal impression of the Midwest) hangs on every sung note or strummed guitar chord. The wide expansive loneliness, the communities tight-knit for generations, the unassuming approach to the daily grind. He encompasses it all with the sorrowful emotional spectrum of a man decades older than his own 30 years.

Most songs are gut-wrenchingly sad, and at other times incisively funny. Any religious references in lyrics aren't because Moreland is a pious man, but rather it was the lexicon in which he grew up.

There's an anxiety that comes with the responsibility of translating inexplicable moments for a third party. Thankfully, Moreland's voice instills peace. I'll let his first televised performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert from a few weeks ago finish this review. Here's "Break My Heart Sweetly."

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