It’s a very couply crowd at the Apollo tonight, packed to the gills with gangs of girls dragging less enthusiastic-looking male partners. The age range is huge; I spot families with young children rubbing shoulders with the older members of the Cheshire set on their way up to the balcony seats, indicating the universal admiration that this soulful singer-songwriter has attracted since bursting onto the scene last year. Since the release of ‘Undiscovered’ in July 2006, Morrison has been riding the crest of a steadily growing wave of approval and recognition; the album is still high in the charts and scooping awards and acolades for its creator.
The band precede Morrison onto the stage, and his arrival is greeted with appreciative roars which drown out the first few bars of album-opener ‘Under The Influence’, followed immediately by ‘Undiscovered’. All of the familiar James Morrison elements are there: his fusion of jazz, blues and rock, the practised musicianship, the raw, gravelly voice, the honest lyrics hinting at a troubled upbringing – but tonight something seems to be slightly adrift.
Morrison has worked a punishing schedule over the last few months, no doubt pushed by a record company hungry to capitalise on his meteoric success, and it is apparent that the workload is starting to take its toll. I’ve seen him perform twice in Manchester since August, and a friend has seen him three times. I get the feeling that being on that endless touring merry-go-round, returning to the same cities again and again must have lost its novelty by now. When I last saw him, at the considerably more compact Manchester Academy 2, the singer seemed brighter and more relaxed, bantering and indeed flirting with the audience between every song and really enjoying the gig. Tonight, although he does chat to the crowd and assure us that we are a great, rowdy crowd, and makes fun of the male members, it does seem a lot more strained. Added to this is the fact that the sound levels appear to be poor and the audience chatter is clearly audible throughout.
It is by no means a bad gig – far from it. The band are perfect, and Morrison’s voice is flawless. Drawing comparisons with Otis Redding, Ray Charles and his namesake Van Morrison, he does, in fact, sound unique, showing that it has been unfair to lump him together on the current male solo singer scene with the likes of Damien Rice, Richard Hawley, Paolo Nutini and, inevitably, James Blunt. With only an album of songs to work from, he is hard pressed to stretch out his set beyond an hour, but the favourites and crowd-pleasers are there: after a singalong ‘You Give Me Something’, Morrison loses his guitar for a soul-yearning version of ‘The Pieces Don’t Fit Anymore’, followed by equally refreshing renditions of, among others ‘The Letter’, ‘This Boy’and an outstanding ‘One Last Chance’. Throughout, girls’ voices call out encouragement, and Morrison now takes it in his stride – only a few months ago he seemed happily and endearingly bemused by all of the female attention. As the girl behind me demands that he take his shirt off, he winds up the set with a rousing ‘Wonderful World’.
Returning to the stage with only his keyboard player, Morrison remarks that he had forgotten how big the Apollo was. Maybe the muted atmosphere was due to him being slightly overwhelmed? But any doubts on the integrity of his performance are shelved by the subsequent rendition of ‘Last Goodbye’, his powerful voice enhanced by the solo piano, the atmosphere further charged by the glittering reflections from a pair of mirror balls. I would have been wholly swallowed up – were it not for the poor sound levels! I can hear people talking throughout this song, and lots of them. It actually makes me feel angry that fellow audience members could be so rude! Finally Morrison concededs to the multiple audience demands for ‘Call The Police’, then then he is gone, hopefully for a well-earned rest. All I can hope is that, now he has proved himself to be a talent worthy of recognition and has worked hard to put his music into the homes and hearts of a broad section of the population, that the record company ease back on him and give him time to develop his unique style to its next natural level.