Praise and joyful noise filled The Theatre at Ace Hotel last Saturday, morphing into a cathedral as the crowd eagerly awaited Grammy Award-winning musician, singer, and songwriter PJ Morton for the Los Angeles stop on his “Watch The Sun” tour, named for his latest album. “Watch The Sun” examines all types of love: self-love, relational love, love of life, and godly love — even when difficult.
To conceptualize the album, Morton ventured to rural Louisiana, not too far from his hometown of New Orleans. Although Morton is an R&B and soul singer with a brass band for this tour, he’s not one to shy away from his churchy roots. Son of Bishop Paul S. Morton — pastor, gospel singer, and founder of the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in New Orleans — religious music naturally flows through Morton’s veins.
Morton often challenges himself to create music that explores the human condition, which allows the listener to experience their vulnerability. His latest album explores returning home to yourself after life involuntarily takes you for a spin. During the show, Morton described what it was like to create “Watch The Sun”: “Working on the album in the middle of the pandemic was a dark time as we lost so many people. When thinking of an album, I thought about the sun. No matter what, the sun sets and rises every day — if we just watch the sun, no matter how dark it is, it’ll change.”
Morton’s L.A. show served as a celebration of life amid bleak times. He started the evening by letting DJ Arie Spins get the audience on its feet. She electrified the otherwise mellow fuschia-and-purple stage with oldies such as Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk?,” After 7′s “Ready or Not,” and seamlessly transitioning into Usher’s hit, “Bad Girl.”
Spins revved up the audience even more with HBCU traditional anthems such as Crime Mob’s “Knuck if You Buck,” F.L.Y.’s (Fast Life Yungstaz) “Swag Surfin’,” and of course, Lil Boosie’s “Wipe Me Down,” which is arguably the ballad of Baton Rouge. DJ Arie Spins’ set not only solidified Morton’s affection for HBCU culture and his alma mater, Morehouse College, but also highlighted his range of musical inspirations as an artist, which shone throughout the night.
The crowd included old-school aunties and uncles to young fly millennials and hipster jazz aficionados. They all came out to enjoy Morton’s bluesy set, eager to experience his artistry. Although the crowd was racially diverse, the Black audience members didn’t feel othered — as the DJ set felt like our collective inside secret.
Morton then emerged, swagged out, and calm. Sitting comfortably center stage at a piano, he began with “My Peace,” featuring sultry singer JoJo. The song talks about self-care and putting one’s peace first to maintain well-being. Coupled with the blaring horns of Outkast’s popularly sampled track, “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” the song was the perfect opener.
For the following songs, “Ready” and “Claustrophobic,” Morton flexed his velvety smooth runs and cool vocal tones. With “Sticking to My Guns,” the set picked up with an electrifying piano solo and accompanying tambourines, as if the band and even Morton’s backup singers — waving church fans — were catching the Holy Ghost on stage. The church references made sense, as the song is about modern-day religion and people’s relationship with God.
Morton then crescendoed into a riveting piano solo. With elements of Stevie Wonder’s “Do I Do,” the keyboard runs mirrored Morton’s vocals. It’s not uncommon for Morton to reference Wonder, as he is well versed in the music of great artists and knows how to insert their legacies in his songs. Morton may even be considered a millennial Stevie Wonder.
Morton tackled various themes in his show: heartbreak and longing, with “Please Don’t Walk Away”; he soothed the audience with generous bellows before transitioning into “Be Like Water.” He needed a little help from the crowd and encouraged everyone to clap in unison. By then, I was less a critic and more a part of the congregation.
The audience participation continued with “Yearning for Your Love,” a rendition of the 1980s classic by The Gap Band. He directed the audience like a church choir, asking us to sing the lyric, “can’t keep running, in and out of my life.” We sang our hearts out, and although we couldn’t sound half as good as Morton or his backup singers, the effort was earnest and pure. It felt like our concert.
He encouraged it, saying, “Wow, that made me feel like a little boy in church!”
For his closing song, Morton belted out “Everything is Gonna Be Alright,” which was appropriate. For those two hours, everything seemed right. We didn’t want it to end.
And Morton didn’t end it. After hearing the crowd’s chants and cries, he came out for an encore and performed a fan favorite, a rendition of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love,” with some help from the audience. We collectively sang the lyrics about fools “breaking us down.” We all felt connected, tied to one mission: to try and impress PJ Morton.
The concert was a Black spiritual experience. We had church. It was our version of passing the collection plate. Our souls desperately needed the night. The show was intimate and personal, even with so many others in the room. That’s the magic of Morton.