The Mercury Lounge has been offering up early sets over the last few years (starting around 6 and ending around 8 pm). Most of these early sets are younger bands trying to get a foot in the proverbial NYC concert door. That was definitely not the case on October 24th when Vapors of Morphine took the stage at the Mercury Lounge. The veteran trio is comprised of Dana Colley (baritone sax and vocals), Jeremy Lyons (vocals, bass, 2-string slide bass, guitars, electric bouzouki) and Tom Arey (drums). Vapors of Morphine is a new iteration of the Boston band Morphine – the brainchild of Colley and Mark Sandman. The band achieved critical success and developed a cult following based on their bottom-heavy sound. After Sandman died in 1999, Colley brought in Lyons. To their credit, Vapors of Morphine isn’t just reliving the past. They do re-interpret some Morphine tunes, but also, have released a new album of new material called Fear & Fantasy.
The band made this crystal clear when Colley welcomed the crowd and announced that they would only be playing songs from their new album. Much to this reviewer’s surprise, the crowd applauded and seemed excited to hear the new material. Most of the songs had Colley’s iconic baritone saxophone sound and felt congruous with Morphine’s songbook. I’m not sure what he is doing with all the pedals he uses, but the sound and feel he produces is like no other sax player I can think of. There is a lot of sonic lingering in his playing that seems dirge-like and soulful at the same time. One could describe it as droning, if drone meant a good thing. Lyons does an excellent job matching the bottom-heavy sound with the bottom of his vocal register. He also plays the crap out of the variety of guitar-shaped instruments listed in the first paragraph. Arey adds the final touch by mixing mallet and stick sounds that keep the music from falling into the jazz or rock compartment that people like to put their music into.
They squeezed 10 songs into their limited 45-minute set including a Ali Farka Toure song “Lasidan” which featured Lyons on the electric bouzouki; and a Mark Sandman cover “Doreen”. Their music was textured and had the wading through a fog sound that Morphine fans are familiar with. They had time for one encore and chose Morphine’s “Mary Won’t You Call My Name?” thus breaking the only rule they laid out at the beginning of the set, But what could be more apropos than that; Vapors of Morphine seems to break every rule or band stereotype imaginable. For example, they play some songs without a bass, some with only bass sounds, some with a two-string slide bass. None of it makes sense intellectually, but it makes a tremendous amount of sense sonically. I even heard one fan describe the band as a saxophone-led band for people who hate saxophone. Colley mentioned that they have been working on this album for the better part of the last decade, and you can tell – it isn’t just a collection of songs it feels like a cohesive album. They should definitely be on your list the next time they come around
.Rose Blanshei played the opening set. It was the first time she has played in front of a crowd since COVID hit. She played a short set comprised of heartfelt ballads and clever songs accompanied by her acoustic guitar. Her voice was very strong, her songs were touching, but the vulnerability she shared, the emotion she conveyed and the community she created were outstanding. Hopefully, we will be hearing more from her.