The Bowery Ballroom in Three Acts

September 12th, 2011

James Vincent McMorrow – The Bowery Ballroom – September 9, 2011

The mood of a live-music show is almost always encapsulated in the relationship between the performers and the audience. Friday night at The Bowery Ballroom, three different musicians took three different approaches to their interactions with an increasingly noisy weekend crowd. First Brooklyn’s Christopher Paul Stelling performed with just an acoustic guitar and his voice, but with the energy of a fully functioning rock band, he took the overpower-them-with-force angle while making plenty of friends with his between-song banter. He won over much of the crowd with infectious deep-folk music and dexterous guitar playing. At one point, Stelling even stepped away from the microphone, as if friendly taunting the chit-chatters in the back. Even unamplified, he barely lost a thing and the applause was hooked and returned the favor.

While also performing with just a guitar and her voice, Marissa Nadler contrasted with Stelling. Her energy was a haunting hypnotism with echoing vocals and gently fingered strings. Nadler professed her shyness between songs, almost getting completely swallowed by the din. She opened with “Conjuring Spirit Worlds,” and her set was an intense, seemingly impenetrable array of poetic lyrics and alternate-universe folk melodies. For one number, a 12-string guitar proved to be completely otherworldly, spiraling into a wonderfully spooky and atonal space. The first few rows of the audience held strong in her sway, but like some inverse-square law, the farther you got from her, the easier it was to lapse into conversation, so that back by the bar felt like a completely different room altogether. Nadler didn’t have the wherewithal to fight it or sing over it like Stelling did, so she just finished her set early and walked away.

Headliner James Vincent McMorrow brought a full band over from Ireland, but took a third strategy with the audience. His songs and demeanor were that of a soft whisper that served to draw in the ears of the crowd to listen, lest they miss a word or note. Like a combination of his countrymen Van Morrison and Damien Rice, McMorrow opened with “The Sparrow and the Wolf”—four-part harmonies and an undeniable sweetness. A banjo was passed around, most powerfully for “Down the Burning Ropes,” and the more stripped down the band became, the sharper the performance was until finally McMorrow was left alone for a couple of songs, including a strong version of “We Are Ghosts.” Of course, no great set is complete without a cover song, and McMorrow obliged with his take on Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” which he introduced almost apologetically, before concluding, “Winwood is a fucking genius.” No need to be sorry, it was a strong solo version and certainly had the audience’s well-earned attention. —A. Stein