"Swamp Yankee" Bill Morrissey at Phoenix Hill Tavern

By Bill Ede

Bill Morrissey brought his quiet authority to Louisville's Phoenix Hill Tavern on Feb. 24, demonstrating for the first time to local audiences why he's been the recipient of some of the highest praise in songwriting circles of the last half-decade.

His sets were noteworthy for their low-key approach, despite the blare provided by the band performing in the Saloon downstairs, which became equal parts distraction and subject matter for between-song patter. His songs have been understandably likened to those of John Prine, but there is a mournful quality calling to mind Townes Van Zandt and a worldly wise character reminiscent of early Kristofferson also apparent in their execution. Morrissey's years of living on the road, a lifestyle characteristic of folk singers from back before (and including) Woody Guthrie, to such contemporary examples as Georgia topical songwriter Chris Chandler, lend his songs a credibility unapproachable by other means.

The concert's older songs included the brilliant "Barstow," a hobo camp anthem which characterizes a drinking participant's eyes as shining "like brakelights," and "Morrissey Falls in Love at First Sight," wherein Morrissey promises the object of a new infatuation "the rights to my ten best songs" — a romantic overture, to be sure. Both are from his debut album Bill Morrissey, released in 1984. Nineteen eighty-six's North was represented here by only "Ice Fishing," a song that is, perhaps, more reflective than instructive.

The bulk of the songs performed, however, hail from his more recent solo efforts, Standing Eight (1989), Inside (1992) and Night Train (1993), and included songs of regained innocence ("Sandy"), new beginnings ("Off White"), and unrequited love ("Love Song/New York, 1982" and the tender "She's That Kind of Mystery").

In the song "Inside," the traditional male-female roles are reversed to reflect more contemporary patterns of labor distributions ("You're home later each night I see. I fix dinner while you talk to me.") The song bespeaks a less-than-perfect relationship. ("Tonight it's just you and me. A furnished room, black-and-white T.V. The late movie runs till three, then it's just you and me again.") The depressed nature of the situation finds the narrator replacing one habitual behavior with another. ("There's no work, just a lot of talk. I quit drinking, now I watch the clock.") In the widely acclaimed "Birches," the couple have genuine love, but are lacking in passion, something apparently bargained off somewhere down the line. Other standouts of the show included "Robert Johnson," Morrissey's re-telling of the bluesman's supposed story, and "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," a 19th-century folk song from Missouri, the only non-original Morrissey was to perform.

Humorous songs made up much of the remainder of the performance, including the name-dropping "Letter From Heaven" ("Mama Cass has dropped some weight and Charlie Parker's clean. Django's fingers have both gone straight, and they've got driving lessons for James Dean."), the wacky "Party at the U.N.," in which Morrissey got to showcase some of his finger-picking expertise, and "Grizzly Bear," which was referred to as his "class struggle kiss-and-tell ballad." ("I can tell by how she high-stepped that she learned to dance uptown. Where I come from, we just kind of like to get drunk and slam bodies all around.")

The concert drew a small but attentive audience and lasted under two hours. Morrissey was amiable and witty throughout.

John Grammer opened with some classical guitar pieces and some carefully chosen songs, including a cover of Todd Rundgren's "Honest Work."