John Moreland - SHAMC, Safety Harbor, Florida

by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date:
John Moreland - SHAMC, Safety Harbor, Florida
John Moreland - SHAMC, Safety Harbor, Florida

Just a quick lesson in geography.  It’s a major commitment for any touring band to venture into Florida.  From Pensacola to Key West is an over 800 mile journey, almost as long as driving straight across Texas from the Louisiana border to El Paso.  But unlike driving across Texas, if you are adventurous enough to make the trek all the way to the U.S.’s southern most point in Key West you have to turn around and go back.  So most touring bands brave enough to wander down into the Sunshine State usually don’t opt to go beyond the halfway point of Orlando and Tampa/St. Petersburg - venturing on down to Miami in addition is a lot to bite off and just forget about Key West (that last leg would be 300 miles round trip).  But this year the inaugural Mile 0 Fest, focused on Americana music, lured some artists all the way down the peninsula and into the keys. Last year, the Safety Harbor Art & Music Center (SHAMC) was lucky enough to grab Parker Millsap when he was headed through town to get on board one of the popular music cruises the area caters to.  This year SHAMC landed themselves another fish swimming back upstream - fellow Oklahoman John Moreland on his way back out of the state from Mile 0.  To say the venue is tiny is a bit of an understatement.  It mainly operates as an art center/studio space, but has a primarily indoor stage area cobbled on that is decorated like a Bangalore flea market.  I mean that in a good way - vibrantly colored fabrics, objets d’art, and a dimly lit chandelier with spidery runners make it an intimate setting to view an up and coming national artist with Moreland being their biggest coup to date.  

The show was opened by Ruston Kelly (aka Mr. Kacey Musgraves) who played a handful of songs accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.  The best of these was a newly written song called ‘Asshole’ that he introduced as a song about being pulled over for a suspended license.  Assuming the subject of the song was going to be the cop, it instead turns out to be himself.  Not sure about the driver’s license as the opening line has the protagonist “blowing over the line” and being hauled off to jail.  The most evocative line came as his wife is driving him home hands gripped on the wheel while he plays a game on his phone and wonders if they have weed back home - an asshole if there was any doubt.  He also played ‘1000 Graves’ from his 2017 debut EP Halloween, but seemed to primarily to focus on new material so perhaps a full LP is in the works.  An affable guy with a dark sense of humor - more are always welcome.

Kelly’s hushed acoustic set may have lulled the sound man into a comfortable state, as he was in scramble mode as John Moreland and his band went straight into their most rowdy number, ‘Sallisaw Blue’, from last year’s excellent Big Bad Luv album.  In addition to Moreland’s outstanding songwriting and husked up vocals (reminding me most of John Hiatt), his lead guitarist, John Calvin Abney on guitar, harmonica and keyboards, stood out and was a very busy man.  Moreland played around twenty songs in his set, and whereas other artists would have a handful of standout tracks Moreland writes nothing but standouts.  That being said, opening with the aforementioned ‘Sallisaw’ quickly followed by ‘Amen, So Be It’ and ‘Old Wounds’, would be an opening salvo any Americana or country artist would kill for.  

By the time Moreland hit the older ‘I Need You to Tell Me Who I Am’ six or so songs in, the band had locked into a groove and the sound had leveled out with most of those in attendance on their feet and crowded at the stage the rest of the set.  As tight as his band is, being up close as Moreland took a solo acoustic turn on a half dozen mid-set songs took things to an even higher plane.  Highlights of this run included ‘Lies I Chose to Believe’ (also from Big Bad Luv) and ‘Break My Heart Sweetly’ with its undercurrent melody from Townes Van Zandt’s ‘If I Needed You’.  As much as a seasoned listener may try to harden their heart to these softer songs it’s impossible to not be affected in person.  And speaking of Van Zandt, the acoustic set had a reminiscent pull to his Live at the Old Quarter album with background sounds of electric fans and other gentle clatter of life between songs helping to cement a memory.

With the band back on stage tuning up, the not so loquacious Moreland quipped that Abney warming up his harmonica sounded liked the intro to an episode of Roseanne.  If you’re going to make one crack make it a good one!  The full band played a few more songs including ‘Love Is Not An Answer’ and closed with a solid choice of a Tom Petty cover in ‘You Wreck Me’.  If SHAMC can snag a handful of national artists each year they are going to put themselves on the map and continue to add to the “I was there when….” mystique of seeing top talent in close confines.

Photo Credit:  Christa Joyner Moody

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