Part of me wants to slather this review in hyperbole, full of superlatives and bolshy statements about the sextet being the Band for Our Times. Even the band themselves – SJ on vocals, Nicky on fiddle, Matt on keys, Ed on drums and Morgan twins Callum and Kieran swapping between guitar and bass – would prefer me not to describe them as the finest young band in Britain, or emphasise their supreme confidence, their masterful control of material and their eclectic setlist which included a surprise appearance of an old tune sprinkled in with future classics.
So I won’t do that.
Instead I’ll kvell in pride at how a band I first saw in 2016 have gradually become a must-see live act who have honed their live set into a proper hour of entertainment. I felt like Jon Landau seeing Bruce Springsteen or the guys from Subpop seeing Nirvana, who knew that the music they were witnessing could affect millions of lives. In a business which has contracted infinitesimally since the advent of downloads and streaming, the live set has returned to its place as the most important aspect of musical entertainment. Even major labels see more value in monetising their catalogue than in promoting newer acts.
Hence, bands need to be as tight and exciting as possible to convince an audience to support them, and for their records to push people towards the live show where they can recoup the sunk costs of production and promotion. It’s a business, man.
A special mention goes to the band’s accomplished opening acts. Demi Marriner is a supremely underrated singer/songwriter who will one day host a whole evening of entertainment where, as she did for 30 minutes in Putney, she talks to herself and remembers to play songs from an album which comes out at the end of the year. Little Boy, which ended her set, is a future standard.
Jack Francis has a date in Brighton in May playing at an event organised by Bob and Myles Harris. With a voice that reminded me of Radio 2 stalwarts like William Prince and Tom Baxter, Jack is a tremendous songwriter who has crafted some gems including the magnificent, radio-ready Helena and the introspective A Little Love. Jack didn’t need to beg us to head to the merch table to buy his recent nine-track album, as several punters had already made up their minds. His music speaks for itself and the more people who discover it, the better.
I remember seeing Arcade Fire perform the songs Rebellion (Lies) and Neighborhood #3 (Power Out) on Later with Jools Holland and just laughing at the magnificence of the entire unit. They were hiding the many hours of experimentation and rehearsal which went into those epochal songs (which are far better than Wake Up, by the way, which I have never liked). I am sure Morganway do not want me to call them the British Arcade Fire, but until they send a cease-and-desist note, that’s what I’ll call them. (By the way, the Canadian group put out their first album in five years in May.)
Aside from SJ’s voice, which has never sounded better, there are four instruments which can take the lead at any one time. On their final tune Hurricane, each of keys, fiddle and guitar took an eight-bar solo, like at the end of the Beatles album Abbey Road. Matt slid his fingers, which sometimes were clothed in fingerless gloves, across the keyboard like a pro. Nicky was actually pogoing like a punk on her fiddle, a Zebedee who exuded elation and who duetted on occasion with both Kieran and Matt. Kieran himself seems to have added extra muscle mass to his arms after a tour playing rock riffs every night on one of several guitars which included a Flying V.
Beside him, his wife SJ went through about ten different styles of vocal: the gentleness of Sweetest Goodbye – the aforementioned surprise tune which SJ had to be reminded had been released on their ‘live album’ – the wide-open rock of new single Back To Zero and the siren call of Come Over. On those songs, from a forthcoming EP, all six members of the band took harmonies. Even Callum was surprised when Ed Bullinger thwacked the drums during a 30-second solo spot which certainly impressed the Bullinger family, who cheered from the back of the room. It was a perfect ‘end of the tour’ set which also coincided with SJ’s birthday. I hope the band enjoyed the two birthday cakes presented to her, one with her face on it. ‘I’ve peaked,’ smiled SJ.
The joy for someone who has supported a band from early on is seeing how much they still love playing old chestnuts which they must have played 200 times by now: My Love Ain’t Gonna Save You still smoulders, London Life still has a confident vocal from Callum and charming melodica solo from Matt, while Frozen In Our Time still broods.
I have now lost count of how many times I’ve seen the band. I’ve just counted ten: Buckle & Boots three times, Boisdale Canary Wharf, Slaughtered Lamb Farringdon, The Bedford Balham, Millport, British Country Music Festival and Country2Country twice or three times, plus Half Moon Putney. I also spotted some very familiar faces in the crowd who have good taste!
A recent support slot for Skunk Anansie at the UEA in Norwich had the legendary Skin showering them with praise – ‘How good were Morganway!’ she apparently said onstage – and the band will surely outgrow any desire to stay in the UK Americana or country scenes. Their genre is ‘Morganway’. They are now ready for enormous stages befitting their talent and, crucially and like all the best bands in rock music, togetherness.