You might hesitate to too narrowly pin down a demographic, but Maren Morris’ two sold-out shows at the Wiltern over the weekend — her first headlining gigs in L.A., soon to be followed by a summer Greek date — definitely had a predominant one: ‘90s babies, with or without the ‘80s Mercedeses mentioned in her hit song of that name.
That Morris’ crowd averages out at about her age was something that was clear from the response to the big guest star of the night Friday. Morris is close in age to her opening act, Cassadee Pope, born a year before her in 1989. But her other duet partner was born just months apart from her in 1990 — JoJo, who had a string of major pop hits as a teen in the mid- and late 2000s. Some portions of the audience that were in the over-40 or under-20 range probably said “Huh?” when Morris brought JoJo out. But from the eruptive appreciation and singing along that greeted JoJo’s every second on stage, you would’ve thought Morris had pulled in Bruce Springsteen — or maybe, to be more generationally appropriate, Britney Spears — for a cameo.
JoJo was, or is, a pop-R&B singer, and so is Morris, for all intents and purposes; it’s just that you can add country as a third element to her multi-hyphenate status. She’s got an R&B singer’s gift for easy melisma and a country singer’s instinct not to show that off unnecessarily, and that combination of sensibilities suits her well for when those things meet in the mainstream pop “Middle.”
So far, somewhat quizzically, no one has made any attempt to work her at any format other than country — aside from a little world-dominating single called “The Middle” that had her featured on a smash with Zedd and Grey — but there are some major Top 40 hits-in-waiting on her newly released sophomore album, “Girl,” if her conglomerate gets around to releasing them. She’s clearly already effectively one of country’s biggest stars, and her Wiltern weekend indicated just how easily she’ll slip into that role in the pop realm, when and if she’s nudged into it as more than just a one-off.
But first, those collaborations. Morris sang the brotherhood-of-man anthem “Common” with Brandi Carlile on her new album, and had been doing it alone in the tour dates leading up to L.A. Here, a verse in, she brought out JoJo, an unlikely but vocally capable ringer for Carlile. In a Taylor Swift-like example of “one of mine, one of yours,” JoJo then stuck around for a duet of “Too Little Too Late,” her 2006 top 10 hit. The singer-actress got sidelined in some of the subsequent years by label and contractual disputes, but, decked out in the miniskirt version of a boxer’s robe and none the worse for wear for no longer being a teen phenom, she sounded ready to get back in the ring.
At the Wiltern, Cassadee Pope (still one of the better, more lasting performers ever to come out of “The Voice”) was doing her final dates as opening act on Morris’ tour before going off to headline an 11-city CMT Next Women of Country tour (with a tour bus advertising that jaunt conspicuously parked right outside the theater). Her role during Morris’ set was to fill in for Brothers Osborne — or one of them, anyway — on the other duet from “Girl,” “All My Favorite People,” which is the new album’s country-est and most irresistibly high-spirited track. Pope was, if anything, even more animated than the headliner during the number, as if burning off her last energy before the break. The song is kind of a tolerance anthem disguised as a good-time party song — or is it vice versa? And as effective as it was to hear “All My Favorite People” co-performed on record by country’s favorite rowdy progressives, having it recast live as an all-female ode to beer, having the blues, and broad-minded bonhomie made it feel even more subversively celebrative.
Morris sang 13 out of the 14 songs from “Girl” — omitting only “Good Woman” (one of the album’s best tracks, heard after the encore as an instrumental soundtrack for a big-screen credits roll). The album-opening and show-opening title track had her rising from underneath a stairway with an electric guitar for the most rock-sounding number of the night, with that quickly to be supplanted — again, live as on record — with the guitar-free “The Feels,” as effervescent a piece of pop as they come. Free-range mic-lessness suited her well as a natural stage dynamo. But so did the acoustic guitar she often took up for the more singer-songwriter-y numbers that bely her back story as someone who could have and almost did make a living turning out sensitive ballads for other singers.
Keyboard player Matt Butler took up a cello on “I Could Use a Love Song,” one of five songs from her 2016 debut, “Hero,” which precipitated Morris’ longest stage preamble. “A few years ago I was choosing a next single and at one radio station meet and greet — not here; in, like, a way other state,” she said, “and this program director told me to not release a ballad because people don’t want to hear sad women on the radio. Yeah, you can boo him. He sucks. And I just thought that was complete bullshit, because when I’m feeling sad or having a low day, the reason I turn the radio on is so I hear someone echoing my feelings so I don’t feel crazy. And I put this song out anyway — and it took 42 weeks, but this was my first No. 1 song and that guy got fired. So, the universe is kind of funny sometimes.”
Morris was more concerned with the new album, as the nearly three-to-one ratio between “Girl” and “Hero” songs would indicate, though she did at draw one non-single from the freshman album — the should-have-been-a-single ballad “Once,” which will always have a problem not being the show-stopper for however long she includes it in her shows. “Rich,” though, is probably the crowd favorite; maybe this happens every night, but she seemed surprised by how the Wiltern crowd completely took over one of the early verses of the song, before the part where she was prepared to coach them to do that. But this was also an audience that had completely devoured the three-week-old “Girl” album. The response to the opening bar of “The Bones” was so loud, you had to stop and make sure you weren’t mistaking that riff for one from an older single. (Whoever’s taking notes about future single picks, there’s a note to take.)
But Morris was at her most theatrical — and arguably best — doing some sensual dramaturgy on two of the most R&B flavored songs from “Girl.” On “Make Out With Me,” she lay prone on one of the steps on the staircase at the rear of the stage, as if indulging in a solo fantasy the camera better ought pull away from. For “RSVP,” the one track on the album that really veers into the realm of contemporary urban music, a folding chair was brought out, and the song is a sexual enough tease that you might’ve been scared for a second that she was going to bring someone up from the audience for a Janet- or Britney-style talking-to. She didn’t go there, of course — this remained a pretty PG show — but it was a routine that reinforced that her completely blinged out, thigh-high cowboy boots, which matched her similarly glittery cut-offs, were made for walking.
The encore ended with “The Middle” — not actually the highlight here, but 90 percent as cathartic a song in concert as it was when it ruled the radio all through 2018, which is catharsis enough. Afterward, Morris’ pop-leaning fans streamed out while her country fans remained in the lobby for a country DJ set that had a few dozen women line-dancing to “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.” Which raises the question: Should we be thinking of Morris in “the next Taylor” or “next Shania” terms? It’s hard to exactly figure, since she has an R&B flavor to her voice that could take her in different directions entirely. Maybe, all commercial comparisons aside, and getting to her spiritual grounding, she really is the next JoJo.