“Thanks for braving the weather,” John Moreland told the crowd at The Basement East last night after a day of biblical rain, a tornado watch, and severe thunderstorm warnings.
“We’ve been trying to play this show for two years. Thanks for remembering us,” John said to a room rebuilt after a tornado ripped through town just before the show he was slated to play at The Beast in 2020. That show moved to Cannery Ballroom and then Brooklyn Bowl before Covid canceled both his Nashville appearance and tour altogether. So, it was time—and it was fitting after another storm almost wiped this date out too.
Like John’s voice and guitar amp, both dialed to the brink between clean and broken up, his songs and his performance are tightrope walks. High stakes the whole way through on stage in one of the most crowded but quiet rooms we’ve witnessed in a few years. Near silent even when he tuned between songs. And then folks singing along, but to themselves, some reciting the songs under their masks.
Lucinda Williams watched intently from side stage at a reserved table. “I listened and was so inspired that I found an envelope and a pen and wrote some lines,” she said after the show. “All I wanted to do was to go home and listen to his music while reading his lyrics because I knew they were important. I wanted to take all his words in.”
Lucinda isn’t the only Nashville singer of note to appreciate the honest, unadorned poetry in John’s music. Back in 2017, Miranda Lambert told Rolling Stone, “When I heard his voice and his lyrics, I didn’t feel so alone. John’s taught me that being that honest about your own feelings can help other people heal.”
The singer out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, seems to elicit this kind of emotional explication. “He fucking lays it on the line,” a gray-haired guy standing behind us told a younger bearded friend of his. “Cuts his heart open in front of you.” A twenty-something dude in a hat that read REVIVAL shared similar thoughts during a lull when John ducked to sip his can of Tecate. “He’s the white guy’s Phoebe Bridgers,” another fan said, getting after the good sad created by an artist carrying the burden so we don’t have to.
It’s an understandable impulse, having a take on John’s writing, because even though it’s poetic storytelling, it’s direct to a point of discomfort for some—full of Southern Gothic, gutted Christian images, calling to mind Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away—the one where a kid tries to outrun a life as a prophet. His songs reveal that rather than being healed, we’re haunted by the Holy Ghost.
By the time John hit his 2013 song “Blacklist,” his own prophet-like lines “Hoping hell would explode / We read all the right books / We sang songs we misunderstood” threw the audience into the first of several amens. “Just let me find a place where I fit,” he finished with and thanked us all once again. And that’s the one that got us—a place to fit when prayer stops working and a home isn’t home anymore, he seems to say—when we can’t shake the original sin of being born.
Without talking much during the night, the scrappy, former church kid turned “reluctant folk singer” steadily presented a new life lived by ancient rules he can’t forget—a thoughtful but cutting consciousness, and within that, a dissonance. He continued to nurse his single can of beer. He plugged along. Part Guy Clark. Part another of his heroes, Steve Earle. All seemingly blended with a kind of spiritual deconstruction you’d see at one of David Bazan’s house shows, offering that, when you’re surrounded by doubt, he’ll meet you in the center of the storm.
But none of those details or calls to the twisted Christian icons outshine the sum of John’s songs. “I heard truth is what songs are for,” he sings on “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore” or “If we don’t bleed it don’t feel like a song” on “Old Wounds.” It’s about the songs, and he can do them any way—full band, solo, or with his guitarist, John Calvin Abney—and they do their work.
He finished with “Cherokee” and, just as the audience finished with another round of talking to each other about what their hearts could or couldn't take, he returned solo for “Break My Heart Sweetly.”
“I was never scared of nothin’
Thought I had a home
Life went and broke me open
So I carried it alone”
The storm was breaking when the bands had loaded in and was broken completely when we walked outside into the cold. But not before we forgot about the storm altogether. Forgot about everything because John remembered everything on our behalf, so for a decent hour and change we could forget.
On the way home, Gallatin wasn’t flooded anymore and somehow, fittingly, in so many of our cars, 89.5 WMOT was playing “It Makes No Difference” from Northern Lights-Southern Cross by The Band.
“And the sun don’t shine anymore
And the rain falls on my door.”
“Well, I love you so much
And it's all I can do
Just to keep myself from telling you
That I never felt so alone before”
Nothing brings people together like a heavy storm or loneliness.
2/17/2022 at The Basement East in Nashville, Tennessee
Photos by Emma Delevante
Words by Luke Wiget