Moray has supposedly "caused a revolution in the folk world" by combining folk with indie guitars, electronica, and (come on, admit it) a bit of goth. "Sweet England" made him an instant hit on Radio 2, and he's gone from strength to strength ever since, including collaborating with the Oysterband on their "Big Session" CD (though, strangely, he doesn't seem to be performing at the tie-in Big Session Festival -- recommended, and I'd be there if I didn't already have tickets for an even cooler concert! -- at De Montfort Hall later this year).
The set opens with a stunning electronically-enhanced a capella solo -- Moray using technical wizardry to sample his voice "live" and sing over the looped samples, building up layers of sound and texture but still allowing the song to ring through loud and clear in its strength and simplicity. I could listen to this all night, so it's a slight disappointment when he brings the band on stage and the music starts to head in a much more generically indie guitar-driven direction.
And, with a few exceptions, that's the direction in which it continues to go. Moray has a strong and confident stage presence when he's singing, and an even stronger voice, and holds the audience's attention without difficulty; on hearing him sing -- and talk between songs, where he's suddenly endearingly (or irritatingly) self-effacing -- it's clear that he cares about the material, about the folk tradition and his place within that. But there are times when the words of the songs were lost under a wall of sound, and when the songs are telling a story, it's frustrating to have so many gaps (even if you know that, this being folk, the only thing you really need to know is who kills the lovers at the end).
I think I must have first seen Jim Moray live at the Folk Festival two years ago, but I only really noticed him when I saw him supporting Richard Thompson almost exactly a year ago, at a gig which I apparently completely failed to write about on LiveJournal. He did a short set, the highlights of which (apart from obvious hit singles "Sprig of Thyme" and "Sweet England") were a poignant, piano-led version of "Poverty Knock", and a brooding, atmospheric version of "Two Sisters" in which he sampled and layered his own guitar sounds, hunched darkly over the effects pedals. A year on, these two songs (bolstered this time by the rest of the band) were still clearly among the high points. The folk tradition provides performers with a ready-made repertoire as long as their beards, but a good singer will winnow out the songs he can take and shape and make his own; Jim Moray has clearly succeeded here, in his own distinctive style. I'm not wholly convinced that his innovations, interesting as they are, have started a "revolution"; but it'll be interesting to see where he goes from here.
That Moray comes across as less electronic than I'd hoped is particularly surprising after the support act, teen synthmeister Dialect. A shy boy surrounded by stacks of electronic equipment, cocooned in his headphones, he gives us not so much a performance as an window into the private world of his music. But it's good, very good. Owen and I look at each other and say "soundscapes", and laugh ironically, though the word's more fitting than usual for the "sync chronic city" that Dialect builds... but we still buy the CD. One to watch out for.