The Basement, Sydney, NSW
Friday 17th June, 2016
A year ago I was lucky enough to sit in on Sydney bluegrass band The Morrisons as they practiced for an upcoming show. But this wasn’t any ordinary practice – The Morrisons were putting the finishing touches on Smoke on a Foggy Highway, their tribute to the bluegrass albums of Paul Kelly. And it was just magic.
Just over a week ago I found myself at The Basement in Sydney watching The Morrisons make their way through Smoke and Foggy Highway with a deftness and grace that was a testament to just how good these guys are. Despite a building a reputation off their Paul Kelly and O Brother Where Art Thou? shows, The Morrisons are no mere tribute band. They are some of the finest musicians in Australia bringing their favourite music to the stage.
For a cold winter’s night in Sydney The Basement was surprisingly packed and I found myself jostling for a position near the bar to catch a glimpse of the band. I suspect Sydney’s Vivid Festival had drawn a few people out of their houses for the show but it’s safe to assume that the majority of people were there on the reputation of the show alone – since its debut last year Smoke on a Foggy Highway has garnered something of a cult status in the folk community as a must see show.
And The Morrisons didn’t disappoint. Kicking off the show by running through Paul Kelly & Uncle Bill’s classic album Smoke and then returning for a second half exploration of Paul Kelly & The Stormwater Boys’ Foggy Highway The Morrisons made these songs come alive. Their skills as musicians meant the material was elevated above impersonation or parody – the band treated it as respectfully as they would any other part of the bluegrass canon.
James “Morri” Morrison is an affable front man whose easygoing stage presence kept the audience enthralled throughout. I love the way he personalised Paul Kelly’s songs with his introductions, espousing his personal connections to the material. Morri was joined by a band of fine musicians – Anna McInerey on fiddle, Jimmy Daley on mandolin, Dr Zane Banks on banjo (and even a little bit of guitar!), Iain Tallis on bass and Miles Fraser on lead guitar – who in turn reproduced the musical accompaniment of Paul Kelly’s bluegrass albums and also made the songs their own. For a brief moment I wondered how close the players were getting to the solos and melodies of the original albums and then I realised it didn’t matter – each song was pitch perfect.
By far my favourite parts of the night were the songs that were driven by a capella and harmony singing. From “Until Death Do Them Part” to “Shy Before You Lord” to the amazing “Meet Me in The Middle of the Air”, The Morrisons proved themselves as some of the finest harmony singers around, not just fantastic instrumentalists.
The other highlight for me this time around was Morri’s solo acoustic version of “They Thought I Was Asleep”. We don’t often get to see Morri picking out a tune on a guitar by himself as it’s easy for him to get over shadowed by the other amazing players in the band, but watching him deliver this classic Paul Kelly track all on his lonesome was truly special.
When the band finished up the night performing their own track “Wild Eleanor” I found myself grinning from ear to ear. There’s a reason that Paul Kelly is considered Australia’s finest songwriter and there’s no better band than The Morrisons to bring his music to life. These songs have grown beyond their maker and it is amazing to see bands like The Morrisons treating this material with the seriousness and reverence it deserves. Next time you see The Morrisons advertise their Smoke on a Foggy Highway show – hell, any time you see The Morrisons advertise any show – make sure you snap up tickets. You can be assured it’s going to be magic.