PJ Morton’s ‘Back to New Orleans’ Tour Raises the Banner on Sumptuous R&B Revival: Concert Review

Posted June 12, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Reviews 1.0

Singer-songwriter proves he’s a commendable presence to R&B’s music scene on Birmingham tour stop




PJ Mortonis no stranger to the city of Birmingham, Alabama. This is where he worked up a local and highly-devoted fan base when he toured with the short-lived neo-soul band, Freestyle Nation. Things are a bit different now. Morton, son of a popular mega-church preacher, is now touring with mega-pop/rock band Maroon 5. And he’s been doing that gig for the last three years ever since co-founder and keyboardist Jesse Carmichael decided to take a sabbatical from the crazy grind of the Adam Levine machine. He’s also signed to Lil Wayne’s Cash Money roster and is now enjoying the official national release of New Orleans, a swinging ode to his hometown and a trove of musical influences ranging from Stevie Wonder (of course), Prince and new schoolers like Drake and Maxwell. But regardless of how high he climbs up the popularity ladder, he finds himself coming back to the southern comforts of home. His “Back to New Orleans” tour includes stops in New Orleans, Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte and Memphis. The Workplay Theater, the intimate 250 seater, has been a suitable and comfortable spot for the experienced R&B singer/songwriter. And despite all the hype that’s now surrounding his name, PJ hasn’t exactly outgrown the venue.

Arriving guests had to test their patience as the news of a late start put the brakes on an on-time event. Almost an hour after the scheduled show time and after a quick sound check, guests were finally able to get a seat. The crowd, mostly comprised of ladies dressed in their cosmopolitan best or Atlanta-inspired urban chic, seemed to be unfazed by the tardiness of the show as they lined up with their tables and skimmed through the one-page menus for their favorite cocktails. Morton’s opener, Clinton Babers II, unveiled a collection of singer/songwriter-inspired tunes, matching the lounge-like decorum of the soiree. The Alabama native definitely proved his grandeur for eclectic styles, something that sums up the character of the headliner’s indie soul. But don’t be fooled: Babers wasn’t exactly a PJ replica.  With an acoustic guitar in hand, he danced with ‘90’s slow jams and Trey Songz lullabies: “Baby, can you hear me?” he passionately pleads on one song. He continued his soul-searching quest for fairy tale love, while bringing in the realities of heartbreak (“Smiling Faces, Broken Hearts”). Very few uptempos were uncorked, although he managed to pull out “Feels So Good,” which he lathered up using Bobby Womack-esque southern soul. He efficiently reworked Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” with a dab of Stevie Wonder sauce, which ultimately produced a tidal wave of girl chants. He even showed off his lead single, “All I Need Is You,” which walked the borders of Nashville conventionality and Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away.” For the crowd, the glossy Top 40 track proved that Babers is more than just a R&B guy; he’s too good to be boxed into being the next big black thing. “Reason for Breathing” showed off his bedroom magic as he juxtaposed poetic sweetness through a set of lyrics that felt spiritual. As a surprise, he marinated the song with Brian McKnight’s “Crazy Love,” producing a healthy sing-a-long right before concluding his set.

When PJ took to the stage, he wasted no time. After a brief “y’all feeling alright?,” he jumped into his reggae-trimmed “Hard Enough” off his new record. Much of the evening focused on that album’s content. Even if PJ’s devotees were expecting a cluster of classics, they didn’t leave disappointed. The New Orleans album may be PJ’s best album to date, simply because it feels more congealed and balanced, even with all the versatility it shows off. As if PJ was working against the clock, he decided to work the songs of the first half together into a seamless medley. “Hard Enough” swayed into the hip-hop-throttled “Lover,” then morphed into “Never Get Over You.” The album version, which featured rapper Busta Rhymes, is one of the forgettable moments on New Orleans, but Morton found a perfect venue to try beefing up his fillers. With a lively and sassy horn section in place, the song morphed into one hell of a gumbo filled with New Orleans spice and hip-hop swag. Things quickly moved into “Heavy,” a stunning presentation dedicated to Muddy Waters blues. It’s no surprise that Morton works up his Holy Ghost fire on the tune: the blues and gospel are twin sisters. But “Heavy” (minus Adam Levine) got better with each and every repetition, lasting well over the six-minute mark. And you could easily tell this was the show’s highlight, as band members couldn’t hide their gleaming innocent smiles. To follow up this sweaty rumpus would be difficult, but Morton managed to do that using sexy Drake-ish Quiet Storm (“Work It Out”) and Mint Condition soul (“Trade It All”). A duet with Birmingham worship leader Candy West on “Love You More” seemed to be appetizing to the audience’s taste buds, while “I Need Your Love” showed off more of Morton’s keyboard wizardry. He also pulled out his latest lead single, “The Only One,” while exercising the faux-harmonica part on the keys.

A few trips down memory-lane were executed including the inspirational ditty “Mountains and Molehills,” but much of it was saved for a much-deserved encore, which yielded “I Need You,” a stunning revisit of “Good Days Bad Days (Fantasyland)” and a rapturous sing-a-long of ‘80s TV theme show flashbacks (Cheers, The Golden Girls).

PJ’s show is a far better presentation of him performing at the max. Although his leather jacket, “I Want My MTV” tee and deluxe assortment of body ink felt like a hip marketing strategy in rehashing the Maroon 5 brand, he walked the stage using the grace of a pro. He limited himself from being confined to his instrument of choice, making John Legend’s on-stage persona look dated. He also shattered the stereotypes that come with singer/songwriters these days by engaging the crowd with Southern hospitality and lots of ad-libs. He did what his albums, even the newest one, fail to explore. Of course, a live show should always take the star to the next level. On this evening, Morton did just that. Don’t be too surprised if the next tour includes one-thousand seat auditoriums. He’s well on his way to reaching that.



Date: June 6, 2013
Location: Workplay Theater, Birmingham, Ala.
Tickets: $20

PJ Morton Set:

Hard Enough
Never Get Over You
Love You More (feat. Candy West)
Let’s Start All Over
Don’t Ever Leave
Work It Out
Trade It All
I Need Your Love
Mountains and Molehills
The Only One

I Need You
Good Days Bad Days
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Thank You for Being a Friend

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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