Plenty of rock bands have made exceptional albums but stunk like a dead carp on stage. And then there’s the peculiar case of My Morning Jacket.
While fans of the Kentucky-bred, reverb-soaked quintet will argue which of its five albums is best (2003’s “It Still Moves” gets the vote here), few would suggest that any of those records live up to the vibrant energy and climactic rush of the group’s live shows.
MMJ concerts these days reach upward of three hours and have a mad-whirl quality to them. The albums are great, or at least half-great, but ...
Apparently, the band members themselves understand the different levels of appreciation.
“We always try to experiment when we get into the studio, to try to capture something new and different,” drummer Patrick Hallahan explained.
“We tour so much because we enjoy playing so much. The live show is probably a purer reaction to that enjoyment.”
Talking by phone last week from backstage at “The Tonight Show”—the last big late-night TV show MMJ had not played (including “Saturday Night Live”)—Hallahan made it sound like the group was once again having a blast on tour.
That wasn’t a foregone conclusion this time around. Before the making of MMJ’s new album, “Evil Urges,” frontman Jim James came down with a serious bout of pneumonia that left him hospitalized for about a week. The going line was he had simply worn himself out on tour. (No surprise, then, that he isn’t doing any interviews for the current swing.)
MMJ had also lost different members over the years because of its demanding road treks. Bassist Tommy Blankenship is the only other original member. A childhood friend of James, Hallahan said the singer and the rest of the band have since learned “a hidden secret” to stand up to the rigors of the road.
“You learn lessons as you go along, so we’ve learned to stay healthy more and get good rest and not knock down anything that would tire us all the more,” he said with a laugh. “Nobody gave us the memo. We had to figure it out on our own.
“These are long shows, so you have to stay healthy. We could do this for a long time if everybody exercises and eats right. It’s amazing what that can do for a band.”
The longest of the My Morning Jacket shows famously came this summer at the Bonnaroo festival, where the band played a four-hour late-night set and reportedly didn’t lose the crowd, even when it started raining.
“It was a magical, electric night,” Hallahan recalled. “It was just a case of Bonnaroo providing us with a platform to do that. We’re playing close to three hours every night on our own. When you play that long, another hour is not so bad once you hit your stride.”
The Bonnaroo set was rounded out with a madcap array of cover songs, ranging from Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” to Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone” to, for a closer, Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home.” Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett (whose band played before MMJ’s set) joined the band for its own would-be classic, “One Big Holiday.”
“He told us he always listens to us before he goes surfing, and he turned out to be a super nice guy,” Hallahan said.
That list of covers and Hammett’s guest appearance should debunk a myth about MMJ: It’s not a jam band. Sure, James and Co. often enlist three guitars on stage at one time and can play songs that stretch over 10 minutes, but that enormity rarely feels excessive. The songs generally follow a strict, carefully orchestrated structure. And unlike most jam bands, the main instrument in this case is actually the singer’s voice, with its lonely-howl beauty.
Named after a jacket with the initials “MMJ” that James found from a burned-down bar, My Morning Jacket shows off its musical versatility on “Evil Urges” as it never before has on record. The songs range from straight-ahead, anthemic rockers such as “I’m Amazed” to the haunting country twang of “Sec Walking” to the wall-of-sound epic “Touch Me, I’m Going to Scream, pt. 2.”
The oddest of the bunch is a futuristic funk romp called “Highly Suspicious,” which finds James singing a Prince-like falsetto.
“It’s not a very serious song, and there wasn’t a lot of thought behind it,” Hallahan said, defending the love-it-or-hate-it track. “We really did it to make people cock their heads more than anything. And maybe to make people dance and have a good time—nothing wrong with that.
“Everything about this album has been fun. From when I first heard the demos to the finished product to how the songs have grown live. There’s a fun, uplifting spirit to these songs.”
Because James moved to New York and the other members are living in different cities, MMJ got together to make “Evil Urges” in two wildly different settings: a cabin in the mountains of Colorado, and a hi-fi studio in Manhattan.
“We purposefully went for the complete opposite setting to take ourselves out of our normal element, force us to do something different, hoping the album would sound different,” Hallahan said.
Mission accomplished. Now, the real test will be how these songs are transformed onstage.