On record, it can occasionally be difficult to separate Kevin Morby from his influences. Even on his latest records, where his songwriting voice has come into clearer focus, the spirits of giants like Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and the Dead hang heavily in the air. Up on stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and freed from the confines of the studio, though, Morby shone in his own light. Instead of residing within those influences, he and his band were able to bend them into new shapes; the darkness of his melodies working like shadow play against the bursting color of the music.
The show opened with the swirling guitar harmonies of “City Music,” the standout title track of Morby’s latest record, settling into a loose, patient before a fiery acceleration from the rhythm section midway through the song sent things into overdrive, with Morby literally jumping into action, his brown curls shaking around his head as he strummed out a slashing, danceable rhythm on his guitar. He continued with a run of tracks from that same album including “Crybaby,” which featured some eerie lead guitar work from Meg Duffy, who also added country-fried licks to the Velvet Underground-indebted “Aboard My Train.”
Duffy proved to be an invaluable member of Kevin Morby’s live arsenal, adding beautiful slide guitar work to songs like “Destroyer” and a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl” that came late in the set. On the former, Morby also enlisted hel trumpet player Cole Kamen-Green to help bring the tune to its beautiful, skyscraping climax. That song was also bookended with two of the stronger cuts in Morby’s catalog, “Harlem River,” which grew from haunting folk ballad into an explosive jam, and “I Have Been to the Mountain,” a terrific bit of psychedelic folk-rock off 2016’s Singing Saw held down by a propulsive bass line from Cyrus Gengras.
Kevin Morby’s music feels particularly at home in New York City. While much of his solo work has come since he relocated to the sunnier shores of L.A., there’s an ever-present dark, almost detached feeling in his sound far more in tune with the spirit of this city and likely birthed from the years he called it home. “Not to get all Bruce Springsteeny, but a lot of these songs are about New York,” he mentioned with a laugh following a beautiful performance of “Parade” off his 2014 album Still Life, noting the connections he still shares with the city, both the tangible in the form of friends and family, and the more ephemeral way it seeps into your bones.
To end the set, the band left Morby alone on stage as he donned a white cowboy hat, matching the eye-catching music notes embroidered on his black suit, and began strumming the gentle chords of “Beautiful Strangers.” The crowd looked on in quiet, enthralled in the song’s warm embrace, though they did let out a cheer for the appropriately cheer-worthy line “Pray for Paris, they can not scare us/Or stop the music.” He brought the band back out for the encore, grooving on the Rolling Stones-esque ballad “Dry Your Eyes,” which Morby broke open with an excited yelp and a biting guitar solo, and bringing things to a proper close with the charging, triumphant “Dorothy,” which descended into delightful, fuzzed out chaos before Morby and co. took their leave.