Oklahoma is a hard place.
Its reputation is one of hospitality and hard work, but it’s a state that’s known its share of trouble, stretching back to its days as Indian Territory, a place created not as a paradise, but a purgatory.
From the Dust Bowl to the repetitive destruction of spring-time tornadoes and even up through the horrific Oklahoma City bombing, anguish is tightly woven into Oklahoma’s identity.
All of that to say: John Moreland is a man who knows from pain — on his fingers, down near the knuckles, are tattooed “OKLA” and “HOMA.”
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Although he’s an east Texas native (born in Longview), the 29-year-old troubadour has spent the bulk of his life calling Oklahoma home, absorbing by osmosis the peculiar blend of pragmatism and despair.
While Moreland doesn’t sing explicitly of grim history or flyover state ennui, the torment rooted in the red clay shades almost every lyric he writes — odes to lost loves, dashed dreams and ambivalence about the meaning of it all.
Monday night, just hours after the New York Times raved about his third solo studio album, High on Tulsa Heat (due out Tuesday), Moreland gave a rapt audience of roughly 75 people seated in the Kessler Theater lobby a breathtaking preview of the record.
As the light slowly faded outside the lobby windows, gradually draping the room in a thin darkness, Moreland’s great, grasping voice — a rich, sandpaper-and-whiskey scrape of a thing; it reaches up out of him, capable of startling force, but always teeming with emotion — wrapped itself around evocative songs like Heat opener Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars, Sad Baptist Rain, American Flags in Black & White and Cherokee.
Armed only with a guitar borrowed from the evening’s opener, Austin-based musician Chris Porter, Moreland spent 65 minutes sculpting one hypnotic vignette after another.
In the tradition of great songwriting talents before him, Moreland excels at distilling life into four- and five-minute chunks, collapsing vivid details — “Your smoke rings fade like a memory,” he sang in Heart’s Too Heavy — into songs slipping between folk, rock, country and blues.
A gifted guitarist, Moreland is capable of almost filigreed intricacy, letting his fingers roam the instrument’s neck, his eyes closed in near-reverence.
As inside the theater, those in attendance in the Kessler lobby Monday were absolutely silent, erupting with applause only between songs, and capping the tour-de-force with a well-deserved standing ovation.
The humble Moreland accepted the enthusiastic applause and cheers, stood and shuffled quietly off the makeshift stage tucked in the corner of the cozy room.
There is a chance, after all, that such adulation — and make no mistake, the scene at the Kessler Monday will undoubtedly be repeated across the country as Moreland tours behind Heat — can’t quite salve whatever pain afflicts Moreland: “I should be dealing with my demons/But I’m dodging them instead,” he sang Monday.
There was hurt, but also beauty.
Much like the land John Moreland calls home, the music was something resembling a truce: a fragile balance between the soul and the soil, and the seed of a songwriter’s career taking root, blossoming into something truly astonishing to behold.
Monday’s show was a first for the Kessler, and the beginning of what owner Ed Cabaniss described as a “small stage concert series.”
The goal is for the Oak Cliff venue to hold what Cabaniss called “our version of house concerts” roughly once a month, with a capacity of fewer than 100 people.
“We’re trying to recognize great singer-songwriters who may be passing through the area,” Cabaniss said.
Keep an eye on the Kessler Theater’s website for future announcments about such shows.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713