by Jane Roser
DC’s 9:30 Club has become a mecca for mainstream, established bands as well as indie artists on the rise. Named by Rolling Stone as one of the best big rooms in the country, the 9:30 Club has showcased everyone from Johnny Cash to The Dead Weather and recently hosted a famous surprise appearance by the Foo Fighters. Hometown artists rarely headline a show here and believe me, you have to be all kinds of awesome to grace this legendary stage. So when local Southern rockers The Morrison Brothers Band headlined Friday night’s show on the one year anniversary of their last 9:30 Club appearance/record release concert, everyone knew it would not be just a great show, but an ass kicking, spit-fiery, hold your Skynyrd emblazoned Bics high in the air kind of experience.
Opening the night was Nashville singer/songwriter Amy Wilcox who played with her full band which included Kristen Katich (fiddle), Patrick Thomas (acoustic guitar), Ben Miller (lead guitar), Johnny Stanton (bass) and Tommy Perkinson (drums). Wilcox has a beautiful, strong voice and she rocked out on her opening song “There’s The Door”, sashaying around the stage to the complete adoration of a very packed room. Wilcox performed an impressive cover of the Pistol Annie’s “Hell On Heels” (from Wilcox’s star turn on A&E’s Crazy Hearts: Nashville) while the stage was covered in a warm red glow that brought a sexy, burlesque feel to the performance and I swear I saw a couple in the audience making out to it.
“We’re gonna play a new one for you guys, it’s a national debut,” Wilcox announced and segued into “Hit And Run” as a few fans posed in front of the guardrail for photos. The band then went into full on reggae mode and did a fun rendition of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”, which I could tell the audience loved by the way everyone was bopping up and down in unison (it was pretty spectacular). Finishing up her set with “He Don’t”, the third track on her eponymous debut album, the guitars wailed, the fiddle electrified, the drums rocked out and Wilcox sang her heart out; all in all a grand set.
The Morrison Brothers Band then took the stage to frenetic screams from their (many) adoring female fans; drummer Matt Nolan expertly twirled his drum sticks in the air and started the show off, literally with a bang. Incorporating fiddler Alex Ruiz (who plays a one of a kind custom made electric fiddle) into their show tonight, the band was tighter than ever. Lead singer Willie Morrison kicked things off with “Everytime I Roll The Dice” by “bad ass honky tonk blues country” singer Delbert McClinton. This tune is a whiskey-drenched blues tinged hillbilly jamboree and the good times did roll. Next, the band performed “Easily Pleased” (off their most recent album State Of The Union) to a spirited audience who sang along as if their life depended on it. It’s always great to see such a passionate response from fans and it resonates back to the band who connect fabulously with their audience.
“PBR” is another crowd pleaser and bassist Dave Benson sang harmony while one animated lady in the audience acted out the entire song (again- awesome!). Morrison held out his mic for the audience to sing the chorus: “I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love” which they did exuberantly and, it must be noted, in key. Truman Morrison (Willie’s brother) switched from an electric to an acoustic guitar for Sturgill Simpson’s clever get-over-it song “Life Ain’t Fair & The World Is Mean” (the title reminded me of that classic William Goldman quote: “life isn’t fair, it’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”). Willie Morrison introduced the band and their “two sets of brothers” the final member being Matt’s younger brother Kevin Nolan, a brilliant songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Nolan switched from electric guitar to pedal steel on “Small Town”, a lovely tune filled with nostalgia and lost loves: “I had to run with wild horses to sow these wild oats and the east-bound train’s a-callin’ my name as she rolls.”
“I love you guys so much!” exclaimed Morrison. “We are starting to record a bunch of brand new songs, so is it cool if we play them for you now?” After the screams from the audience die down, the band plays “Better Than The Rest” which has a kick ass bass intro and sizzling guitar riffs. This song belongs in a stadium rock show, no doubt about it and the crowd’s reaction was great, one lady carved out a small space and danced around happily, flailing her arms up in the air in what I’m sure was a musical epiphany. “The Giving Tree” is a very catchy tune that really showcases Matt Nolan’s incredible percussion accents and the finale was faster than a cat catching a canary. “Love It All”, another new song came next and then one of my favorite covers that The Morrison Brothers perform, Blackberry Smoke’s “Up In Smoke” burst out like flames licking a bonfire. This is a tough song to play and they nailed it perfectly.
The jazz influenced “Ain’t No Stopping You” from State Of The Union was played next and then Morrison graciously threw some of their new merch out to the crowd (love the trucker hat) before kicking into a tune from their 2011 album, Shotgun Silhouette, called “Every Little Sunday” which really showed off Ruiz’s exhilarating fiddle skills. With Truman Morrison on acoustic guitar and Kevin Nolan on pedal steel, this is a happy tune that makes you want to just go out and frolic in a field. At the end of the tune, Matt Nolan, without missing a beat, finished up the song and then immediately threw his arm out and pointed to Ruiz, acknowledging his awesome performance.
“One year ago today was our album release show. It’s great because we got to recycle our posters,” jokes Morrison. With Truman Morrison on electric guitar, Willie Morrison playing acoustic guitar and Kevin Nolan switching to keys, the band goes into “Without Me” before Morrison asks “are you all excited about our special guest tonight? Make some noise for the one, the only Alyson Gilbert!” Gilbert performed often with The Morrison Brothers, but has recently cut back her appearances to raise her child, so it was a real treat to see her back onstage.
“Treat Me Right” is an entertainingly cheeky song that Gilbert and Morrison sing together. Gilbert laments: “how can you love me when you always disappear?” and “you know being alone was never part of the plan, I never signed up for a part-time man.” Whether you’re dating a musician, a traveling salesman or George Clooney, the tune acknowledges how hard it can be to maintain a relationship when one half is always on the road. There was a super cool instrumental segment and Morrison grabbed a tambourine, then jumped down into the audience for an interactive hoedown, much to their sheer delight.
Morrison took a short break while Gilbert sang a song called “Why Can’t I”. At this point, some audience members had downed a few too many Jack and Cokes and became quite amusing. One very tall guy in the audience took a moment to shout his adoration for Gilbert telling her that they were “meant to be” while a girl in the front row unbuttoned her plaid shirt and let the sun shine in. This was truly an honest to goodness rock concert.
“Gimmie All The Love” is one of my favorite original tunes and is definitely one you’re meant to shake a tailfeather to. It’s an audience participation song and Morrison got everyone singing along with their fists pumping in the air. If you’ve had a crappy day, this tune will turn that frown upside down.
“It’s been a rather fun summer for us,” Morrison said, “and there’s no place we’d rather be right now.” The Morrison Brothers spent a good portion of the summer playing with country greats Maggie Rose, Leon Russell, Merle Haggard and Frankie Ballard so they treated the audience to a throwback country song from 1994; a David Lee Murphy tune called “Dust On The Bottle” (‘but it’s one of those things that gets sweeter with time’). The crowd sang along to the chorus and were so in the moment that as soon as the song finished, one guy shouted “we’re not worthy!” (hey, at least he didn’t yell out “Freebird”)
A super fun rollicking cover of “Bar” by Georgia singer/songwriter Sonia Leigh kept the audience not only singing along, but everyone’s arms shot into the air and started swaying for the duration of the song: “you can say what you will, but I’m drinkin’ til I get my fill, so if you’re lookin’ darlin’ I’ll be at the bar.” Benson took a photo of the crowd as Morrison told everyone to keep their hands up in the air, then they started playing one of my favorite new tunes “Summertime Shine”, written by Kevin Nolan: “livin’ it up like the world stopped turning/school’s out but I’m still learning/the way to ease the sting of that sweet sunburn.” It’s a catchy song that belongs on the radio ASAP. Morrison swayed his arms back and forth in time with the chorus and in a nifty piece of synchronicity, the audience mimicked his moves.
“This last song is on our last album,” said Morrison. “Clay Walker heard it and liked it. He just recorded it and he’ll release it soon, so be sure to ask for it to be played on the radio.” Clay Walker has 960,000 likes on his Facebook fan page, so I have a feeling there will be a lot of air time for “Little Miss Whiskey.” This song has been a huge hit for The Morrison Brothers and garnered them a WAMA nomination for Video Of The Year. It has killer drum beats, a wild electric guitar riff and is the perfect definition of a true Southern Rock tune. Morrison held the mic out for the crowd to sing the chorus and at the end of the song, the band left the stage, the audience screamed for more, people held their beer up in the air and the chick up front was still flashing everyone. The evening couldn’t have gotten any better, until it did.
The Morrison Brothers came back for an encore and it was a doozy. Willie Morrison picked up his acoustic guitar, Ruiz played mandolin and Matt Nolan sang (the coordination and focus it must take to play drums and sing at the same time just amazes me). The initial drum beat sounded like a shotgun blast as Nolan performed Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”. The energy in the room was electric and it was obvious the band was enjoying themselves immensely, which permeated through to the audience. At the end of the song, Nolan threw his drum sticks into the audience, both Morrison brothers threw their picks and Kevin Nolan pretended he was going to throw his fedora.
I spoke with Willie Morrison, Matt Nolan and Kevin Nolan about their new songs, specifically “The Giving Tree” which Morrison says is “one of those tunes about somebody who gives and gives without getting anything in return” and “Summertime Shine” which Kevin Nolan explains was written “in a 10 minute burst where I had the whole song and then we spent the next month trying to write the second verse, but we’re really excited about that one.”
Next week, the band will be back in the studio to record three or four new songs and plan to release them before early September. “The reception to the new songs has been very positive,” says Kevin Nolan, “and one of the things that kicked us into gear to record them is that people are going home and trying to buy them on iTunes, but they can’t find them.”
Matt Nolan explains that the band “has enough songs to make another record, but we’re choosing to go in this direction.” Morrison adds, “the most important thing for us is letting our fans have new music, so this is the quickest, most efficient way right now.”
The Morrison Brothers Band will be driving up to Philly next month to headline a show at The Legendary Dobbs on August 7th, then they’ll play two sets at Musikfest on August 8th “We’re bringing our A-game,” says Matt Nolan, “we definitely feel that Philly is a songwriting town; we’ve done several shows with songwriters from Philly and we’re excited to play there.”
A fun, why-not quick poll of who they’d love to tour with netted votes for Zac Brown (Willie Morrison), The Police or The Black Keys (Alyson Gilbert), The Black Crowes (Matt Nolan) and Blackberry Smoke (Kevin Nolan and Truman Morrison) Hmmm…I’m sensing a color theme here.
The next morning I saw a post on a band member’s Facebook page where someone had commented, “must have been a heck of a show. You’re blowing up the internet today!” The Morrison Brothers Band know how to write great songs that capture their audience’s imagination and their heart, plus they’re consistently delivering exciting, memorable live shows, creating a steady stream of new fans along the way. So move over Steve Earle, there’s some bad-ass new gunslingers in town.