by Geno Thackara
Outside, there were groups of St. Patricks’s Day revelers in bright green roaming the chilly wet city blocks, but inside the Boot & Saddle Saturday, the feel was closer to a cozy highway bar out in the dusty Midwest. The place certainly suits its name with a cowboy-boot sign over the door, well-worn wood floors, Western-themed murals and a lit sign along the wall announcing “Dance – Country & Western Music.” (Insert obvious Blues Brothers joke here if you like.) Sound odd for an old brick building in the urban heart of Center City? Maybe, but you could have hardly asked for a better spot for the traveling show that brought Kevin Morby and friends through town on Saturday. They’ve got a down-home folksy flavor that comes across best when you’re up close and personal.
Ryley Walker started things off with an enticing preview of his forthcoming album Primrose Green. His set made a helping of charming Americana combined with a slight streak of 70s psychedelia – an interesting mix that could easily go very wrong, but thankfully worked to great results. With fuzzy electric piano, a touch of country fingerpicking, some occasional Jeff Buckley-style vocal acrobatics and a little friendly joshing with the audience, he made just the right warmup to lead up to Kevin Morby’s headlining slot.
The Boot & Saddle audience certainly appreciated both. At one point Morby mentioned it was nice to be back in Philly even though, “I hardly know anyone who lives here anymore,” but from the warm reception of the room, you probably wouldn’t have guessed. This eclectic crowd (ranging from college-aged to retirement-aged) was ready to make them feel welcome as soon as the trio eased into the smooth Southern glide of “The Dead They Don’t Come Back”. They were familiar enough to give a hearty cheer at just the first couple chords of his newest single “All of My Life”, and not shy to whoop and applaud generously throughout.
Like the studio recordings he’s touring behind – 2013’s Harlem River and last year’s Still Life – Morby’s live show makes a virtue of keeping things simple, whether it’s soulful balladry or timeless rock or anything between. Justin Sullivan (drums) and Meg Duffy (guitar/bass) provided just the right tasteful backing each song needed. They had the room bouncing for the highway groove of “Motors Running,” swaying along through the spooky extended guitar jam of “Harlem River,” and were otherwise content to back things up with a light touch more often than not.
Toward the end they walked off to let Morby wind things down on his own for a couple last songs. He and the audience may not have been familiar friends before the night started, but everyone certainly felt closer to it by the time he drifted off to the end of “If You Leave and If You Marry.” It was fitting – probably the most straightforwardly sentimental song in his solo catalogue so far, and sung to a room where you couldn’t get more than 30 feet from the stage. Music doesn’t get much more up close and personal than that.