John Moreland has a reputation for putting on a powerful show. What I wasn’t prepared for was for people in the audience to literally be moved to tears by his performance at The State Room on Sunday.
But that’s how overwhelming Moreland can be, stringing together lyrics that penetrate to wherever it is we stash our deepest emotions.
Moreland is among the best songwriters in the business today, melding Leonard Cohen’s sense of poetry with Townes Van Zandt’s raw emotional appeal.
Just one example: In “Lies I Chose to Believe,” one of the breathtaking highlights of the night, Moreland sings, “Well I’ve gone and lost my faith in photographs/ Cursed those martyrs that mark my past/ And I long for a day when we’ll look back and laugh about all this. But good luck finding your peace of mind/ Being born into these brutal times/ And these days I don’t pray when I close my eyes/ I just bite my tongue a bit harder. ’Cause you were a lie I chose to believe.”
That would be plenty, but Moreland does one better, delivering his lyrics in a deep, gruff voice that you don’t just hear, you feel in your gut.
He opened his set Sunday with “Sallisaw Blues,” the rocking first track off his new album, “Big Bad Luv,” following it up with “Old Wounds,” which features the line “We’ll open up old wounds in celebration/ If we don’t bleed, it don’t feel like a song.”
Between songs, there wasn’t the usual buzz of chatter in the audience. You could hear a pin drop as the crowd tried to catch its breath, digest what it had just heard and brace for the next song.
Moreland was supported by John Calvin Abney on guitar, keyboards and harmonica, adding nice texture to his guitar work as they navigated from one heart-wrenching song to the next.
Highlights included “Earthbound Blues” — which opens with the memorable line “Small town blues, Sunday afternoon/Smells like sadness and perfume” — “3:59 A.M.” and “Cherokee.”
Moreland finished the night with a two-song encore that featured the plaintive crowd favorites “Break My Heart Sweetly” and “I Need You to Tell Me Who I Am.”
It was, no doubt, a cathartic experience and one of the best shows I’ve witnessed in years, and the tears in audience members’ eyes made it clear that I was not the only one who was moved by this poet and musician at the top of his game.