Justin Timberlake Pal Matt Morris Rises Above Noisy Kentucky Club

Talk about having to work for you dinner. Matt Morris was singing his heart out and just about the only thing you could hear at Newport, Kentucky’s legendary Southgate House on Monday (June 14) night was the annoying vuvuzela-like buzz of idle conversation.

With just 30 minutes to warm up the sold-out venue before headliner Ingrid Michaelson took the stage, Morris took the high road, winning over the chatty crowd with his soaring falsetto and slyly funky songs rather than berating them for treating his set like an open mike cocktail hour (which, coincidentally, was exactly what was going on upstairs in the Lounge).

Morris, you might recall, splashed onto the scene in February when he joined his old “Mickey Mouse Club” pal Justin Timberlake on a mesmerizing cover of Leonard Cohen’s 1984 classic “Hallelujah,” which helped introduce him to the pop world after years of behind-the-scenes action by the former child star.

From his Mouse House days to now, the 28-year-old Morris is a study in contradictions. He hit the stage with his trio (he plays bass and acoustic guitar alongside a drummer and electric guitarist) dressed in skinny black jeans, dark aviator glasses, a black suit coat pushed up just enough to reveal a right arm sleeve of tats, closely cropped hair, beard and a plunging neckline dark T-shirt that gave a peek of some chest art.

With his long, very lean frame and dark look, you might have expected a morose, Nick Cave-like sound, but instead the audience was treated to the airy slow motion funk of “In This House.” With the temperature at show time still hovering in the mid-80s with 93 percent humidity and heat lightning blazing across the sky above downtown Cincinnati in the distance, Morris eased into the set slowly, so as not to make anyone sweat any more than they already were in the tightly packed, humid club.

He had a slightly sinister look, but as soon as he opened his mouth to address the audience and joke about the alleged ghosts that haunt the old hangout for Machine Gun Kelly, Morris sounded more like the chatty next door neighbor whose always up for watching your cats. “If there are any other people in here, you’re welcome to listen, too!” he said cheerfully as he took off his shades.

The only problem was, the crowd was chattering so loudly it was hard to hear his fragile falsetto and acoustic picking on the excellent “Bloodline,” a midnight ballad of a poor, unwed mother. As his voice rose above the din for the song’s crescendo, the audience appeared to take notice and by the time he rolled into the blue-eyed soul of “Love,” the tide began to turn. The lite funk tune took a turn into a reggae breakdown mid-song and then slammed back into a hard blues jam before detouring into a kind of proggy, new wave jag as the throng on the floor broke out into a spontaneous fast clap.

The trio’s dexterity was evident again on “The Un-American,” a song I fell in love with when I first heard it on Morris’ excellent 2008 EP Backstage at Bonnaroo and Other Acoustic Performances. From that stripped down, unadorned version to the slicker pass on Morris’ upcoming Timberlake-produced full-length debut When Everything Breaks Open to the moody, U2-like pass on Monday night, Morris is clearly restless in his pursuit of endlessly re-arranging his songs.

With a bubbling bass line, spare arrangement, eerie slide guitar and rim shot drums, the ode to (in)conspicuous consumption built higher and higher until Morris finally shut the yakkers up with a sky-high note followed by a sly smile.

Saving the best for (almost) last, he wound down with the slow-rolling, greasy funk of “Money,” a song that most sounds like a JT production and which could easily pass for one of Timberlake’s ballads.

It’s the hardest gig in show business, this winning over a distracted audience. And Morris seems to be doing it one city at a time, putting in the hard work to prove himself in beer-soaked joints by posing for pictures with fans after his set, signing T-shirts, being gracious and, most importantly, making it seem effortless when it’s been a lifetime in the making.

Go check him out. You won’t regret it. Just make sure you shut up while he’s playing, though.

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