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ACL Fest: Even a loud crowd can’t sour sweet James Vincent McMorrow

Eric Pulsifer

Irish singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow’s afternoon set at ACL Fest 2017 was marred by a common culprit that can hold back softer and folk acts playing fest sets: crowd noise.

Even through the outer-ring sprawl of blankets and folding chairs and into the thick of it mere feet away from the stage, McMorrow’s unfaltering falsetto struggled to break through a wall of chit-chat from selfie-takers and day-drinkers. McMorrow’s backing band banged, but his voice really soared over sparse arrangements, an unfortunate thing when facing a young crowd that seemed to have an equal disinterest in live music as they do wearing undergarments. (Insert old-man fist shake.)

Crowd noise complaints aside, McMorrow’s set soared. There’s a short list of artists who successfully pull off falsetto live in a meaningful way, and McMorrow pushes his powerful high-pitched voice out with a breath-taking passion and earnestness few can. His songs feel vulnerable but sexy, like Bon Iver tunes for the bedroom—somewhere between Rhye and The Bee Gees.

The bespeckled, bearded and… be-hatted McMorrow looked sharp on stage swapping between a stunning twinkling turquoise ax and a shiny all-black guitar. He also seemed to be having a blast on stage, laughing about Reptar andGolden Girls flags waving in the crowd and inadvertently (he claims) throwing his diamond in the sky, a la Jay-Z.

The crooner reeled in the rowdy crowd some as he stepped out from behind his keyboard and moved around the stage later in  his performance and began digging into a pair of people-pleasing hits: “Rising Water,” with its opening wobbly, funk-filled Stevie Wonder keys and synchronized hand claps, and set-closer “Cavalier,” with its anticipated high refrain of “I remember my first love,” which hit like a sledgehammer and sent the crowd into cheers on that first sweet delivery.

Today’s set comes at the end of roughly 16 months of touring, McMorrow said, and marked a rare Austin appearance for the band. If soulful folk with an R&B edges moves you, get it while the getting’s good: You can catch James Vincent McMorrow again this week at Scoot Inn and back at Zilker Park for Weekend Two of ACL.