Maroon 5’s backup keyboardist shows he has a lot more to offer at Howard Theatre


PJ Morton performs a headlining set at the Howard Theatre on Feb. 22. (Josh Sisk/For The Washington Post)
February 23

Don’t feel bad if you’re just hearing about PJ Morton, soul music fans. The New Orleans native is the fill-in keyboard player for Maroon 5, and he’s signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money label — neither exactly bastions of soul music excellence. But give Morton your ear for just a few minutes and it becomes immediately apparent that the mainstream pop band and the controversial commercial rap label have been harboring a musical talent worthy of your attention.

During Morton’s show at The Howard Theatre on Saturday night, he said his voice wasn’t “all the way there” due to the strain of touring and even pulled an amazingly gifted vocalist from the crowd to help him out at one point, but he sounded strong.

The preacher’s kid (his father is well-known pastor Paul S. Morton), who calls himself the “live show killa,” powered through his set with few breaks, seamlessly moving between reggae groove (“Hard Enough” from “New Orleans”), lighthearted R&B pop (“I Need Your Love” from 2010’s “Walk Alone”) and jammy blues (“Heavy”).

Opening act Black Alley put in its own fine set, showing off its range of influences (soul, rock and go-go, among others) and volleying between covers and originals (including “Artists’ Prayer (Push Play).” Black Alley calls itself a “soul garage band”; Morton refers to his sound as “soulful pop” — both are catchy shorthand for the same simple thing: tight energetic band, strong vocals and appealing songwriting.

Morton can, at times, veer toward the derivative — the influences of Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and Prince are clear. But just when you think, “Hey, this sounds a little too familiar,” he either pulls up and changes course or allows himself to drift into a cover: Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and Marley’s “Is This Love?” were both slipped into his own compositions at the Howard show.

He ended with “Purple Rain” dead ringer “I Need You,” and then the theme song from the ’80s sitcom “Cheers,” an odd choice not only stylistically, but because pretty soon Morton won’t have any problem finding a place where everybody knows his name.

Godfrey is a freelance writer.

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