Just before his encore at Rough Trade last night, Kevin Morby played two songs alone on stage. The first, “Black Flowers,” which appears on his latest record, Singing Saw, was one of many he dedicated to specific friends that evening, mentioning each by name. The second was a cover of a Townes Van Zandt track “No Place to Fall,” which he dedicated to all of his friends and family, many of whom were in the room, since Morby’s musical roots in New York run deep. He’s made albums honoring the city (2013 solo debut Harlem River) and documenting a wandering lifestyle (2014’s Still Life), but Singing Saw finds him fully embracing the bluesy, jangly, West Coast ease he’s settled into since relocating to Los Angeles several years ago.
Van Zandt is something of a spirit animal for Morby. Both grew up in Texas, with prominent matriarchs named Dorothy by their sides (Van Zandt would list a boat named after his mother as one of his few possessions in a 1994 divorce settlement; Morby’s guitar, an homage to which appears on Singing Saw, is named after his grandmother). Morby wears his sonic references on his sleeve — another big one, especially vocally, is Bob Dylan — which gives his catalog a dusty, antiqued feel, a sound he no doubt honed while playing bass in indie folk outfit Woods. After a brief dalliance in lo-fi garage rock project the Babies, which Morby formed with Vivian Girls alum Cassie Ramone to release two albums in 2011 and 2012, he immediately returned to the folksier sound. Harlem River and Still Life certainly captured his penchant for Van Zandt and Dylan, at times so much so that Morby’s vibe sometimes came off as slightly hollow and performative, despite those records’ loveliness. Singing Saw, on the other hand, feels authentic, robust, and comfortable, and Morby’s live performance accentuated that at every turn.
Clad in a cornflower blue suit and bolo tie (both of which he wears in the video for “Dorothy”), backed by a band swathed in faded chambray, Morby wants to give off the impression that these songs are as lived-in as the maybe-vintage denim. They aren’t all personal — searing early single “I Have Been to the Mountain” is his answer to the protest anthem, penned after Eric Garner’s death — but the stories are told through a consistent, dreamlike lens that paints Morby as a loner in some raw wilderness. Save for those two solo songs at the end of his set, though, this is not a one-man affair. Morby’s band stands in for the rugged terrain; Meg Duffy’s unfurling guitar solos and wispy backing vocals are like haunted desert spirits, while bassist Cyrus Gengras plucks out deft, rambling lines. And longtime drummer Justin Sullivan knows when to imitate the jagged outcroppings of a rocky cliff, scratchy scrub, or the gentle sway of a lonely creek. Together they work as one surging, authoritative unit, bringing a timeless air to older tracks as well as the new.
Morby was a bit sheepish about playing two back-to-back shows in NYC — he’d hit Mercury Lounge the night before — stating that he didn’t want to repeat any of his stage banter. He praised summertime in New York, shouted out old buddies, and asked if anyone at Rough Trade had seen both performances, eliciting sparse cheers from a dedicated few in the crowd. On his previous tour, he’d only brought Sullivan along, prompting a heckler to ask where the band was; recounting that story, he smiled and said, “Here they are!” seeming grateful that they were so dedicated to helping him bring Singing Saw to life. And though the LP has a distinctly Californian vibe, Morby’s reverence for the five boroughs was palpable throughout the show, most especially when he was introducing his penultimate number, “Parade,” as one about the city. Its first lines could be spoken as encouragement to any resident — “If you come to find out who you are, may you find out who you are” — but it was also an admission that no matter which coast Morby inhabits, the true New Yorker never really leaves.