There’s been a real buzz around recent performances from Sam Morrow and his band, over in the UK for their first proper tour, and with good reason. It’s hard to credit that the LA- based Texan troubadour is only 27 years old given the maturity of his songwriting and this, allied to the ability and panache of his band’s playing, make for a potent mix. ‘Heartbreak Man’ is pretty much an out and out swaggering southern rocking country song – Sam Morrow pretending to be the uncaring rambling character of the song title, when the reality is he’s a heartbroken sweetheart who’s only playing at the notion of being an itinerant badass.
It’s a great start to the set which merges straight into the uptempo ‘Girls’ – lacking the swell of the organ which features on the album version on ‘There Is No Map’ – but compensated for by some stellar guitar playing from Damon Atkins on the telecaster. This isn’t to understate the importance of the other band members either – with terrific contributions from bassist Adam Arcos and Lancastrian sit-in, Ben Gonzalez, on the drums. ‘Quick Fix’ is the funkiest song on display tonight and many people’s entry point into Morrow’s music. While a live rendition doesn’t carry the variety of the Muscle Shoals sound on his latest album, ‘Concrete and Mud’, it still resembles an outtake from ‘Thanks I’ll Eat It Here’ by Lowell George crossed with ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ by the Band, which can never be a bad thing.
‘Quick Fix’ is in counterpoint to the more ponderous, slow groove of ‘San Fernando Sunshine’ which follows, before things ramp up a notch again with a cover of Willie Nelson’s ‘Shotgun Willie’. This is the first in a series of interpretations of songs by other acts tonight which also includes a chest thumping version of Steve Earle’s ‘I Feel Alright’ and the riff heavy Texas boogie of ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ by ZZ Top. Rather than being a measure of the insufficiency of self-penned material available to Morrow, it feels instead more like an opportunity for him to display the range of his varied musical influences and the melting pot of diverse musical styles he listens to.
In a set heavily drawn from the last two albums, there’s an absence of songs from his more sombre sounding debut release, ‘Ephemeral’ – a sign perhaps that Morrow has moved on sonically nowadays, although the lyrics to the shuffling ‘Barely Holding On’ are still a reminder of the past he’s left behind.
While ‘Concrete and Mud’ is far from an overtly political album, Morrow is capable of holding up to scrutiny the mythology of days of yore in the American south and finding it wanting – particularly on the song, ‘Good Ole Days’: “Segregation on the buses, in the diners and country clubs..” The song is not only a corrective to the idea of what making America great again might entail, but also has the catchy-as-hell pay off line at the end of each verse: “Tell me how you love them – yeah, good ole days.” New material such as ‘See Crooked, Talk Straight’ has Morrow swapping guitars with Damon Atkins during the song which is a neat trick. It’s also evidence that there are even more accomplished songs in his locker that are yet to see the light of day. It’s when the band fire on the truly outstanding ‘Deaf Conductor’ that they really show their class, along with the final pay off of ‘Paid By the Mile’ (how many musicians wish this was the basis of their remuneration). This number segues neatly into ‘Living On Tulsa Time’ during the mid-point of the song before the band return to the road weary main chorus.
“We’re the kings of anti-climactic encores”, Morrow announces as there’s no backstage area in which to retire before coming straight back for a run through of Waylon Jennings’ ‘Waymore’s Blues’. Although the acoustics at the Slaughtered Lamb aren’t ideal – the low ceiling resulting in something of a muddier sound than that experienced at the Bedford in Balham last week – Morrow and his band are still an outstanding live turn. Combining the best elements of the Allman Brothers, Little Feat and Rusty Weir (who also covered multiple genres) they manage to channel all that’s good about their predecessors, while still retaining a sound uniquely their own. Although the more soulful embellishments of his latest record are somewhat lost in the set up of a harder sounding four piece outfit, this is still country rock in all the best senses of the term.
On conclusion of their set, a friend said there’s no earthly reason why Sam Morrow shouldn’t reach the heights that Blackberry Smoke have achieved on this side of the pond, such is the immediacy and enduring nature of his appeal. Let’s hope he’s right – but for the time being this still feels like the start of a relationship with the UK that could turn into something very special.