[10 May 2011]
Jim James is one weird son of a bitch. As frontman for My Morning Jacket (arguably one of the world’s most acclaimed alt-rock bands this side of Radiohead), this Kentucky native has made a name for himself not only as one of the decade’s most unpredictable songwriters — morphing from southern rock to psychedelia to gospel to funk, depending on his mood — but also for just, well, being weird. He changed his professional name to Yim Yames for reasons no one (perhaps even including James himself) understands; on-stage, he loves to head-bang and float around in a ridiculous cape alongside a mascot bear adorned in a Mexican shawl. Speaking to the audience, he’s equally likely to drop a slew of “goddammits” as he is to persistently thank God for the beautiful evening. In a recent interview with Spin, he cited influences as eclectic as the unfashionable ‘80s pop-rockers Mike + the Mechanics and psych-rock Thai band Ubon Pattana.
So when My Morning Jacket took the stage at the Memorial Coliseum, strolling out confidently to a sax-drenched waltz, what might have been interpreted by the unfamiliar as a strange choice of tune only seemed head-scratchingly appropriate. With a new album set to arrive later this month, it was a safe bet to assume that the five-piece would be debuting a lot of highly-anticipated new material, but this high-energy, note-perfect set was basically a tour through My Morning Jacket history, pulling tracks from all five of their excellent albums — going back to their grain-silo-reverb, emotive folk debut, The Tennessee Fire, up to their most recent effort, the densely eclectic Evil Urges
The show was clearly a special one for James as he constantly reminded the crowd of that fact. As a former student at the University of Kentucky (on which Memorial Coliseum is located), James brought a unique perspective to the venue and the surroundings: engaging the transfixed audience with heartfelt stories about his college days, working at Fazoli’s, writing songs on a shitty recorder in his dorm room, trying to make something beautiful. At one point, he talked at length about the school’s legendary basketball program, defending controversial former coach Tubby Smith, talking about how the school nearly rioted when the school lost in the NCAA tournament, then nearly rioted when the school won the NCAA tournament. The moral of the story, James said, is that “No matter what happens — win or lose — you’re always gonna fuckin’ riot!”.
At times during their epic set, it seemed like the crowd would do just that, randomly launching glow sticks throughout the stands, fans of all ages, shapes and sizes, from grandmas to freshmen stoners, all twisting, fist-pumping, and shouting every word as if enraptured in some sort of religious awakening. From the big, reliable rockers, like the classic rock stomp of opener “Mahgeetah”, to the weeper-level acoustic ballads, deep tracks like “Butch Cassidy”, and the rare new tune (and quite possibly the show highlight) “Wonderful”, the boys were absolutely on fire from beginning to end. The sheer volume was a bit much to handle at times; in playing for a literal stadium-sized audience, some of the nuances in the performances were drowned out in white noise. In particular, Carl Bromel’s lead guitar was way too loud. But in spite of the occasional sound mixing flubs, it was pretty impossible to not get wrapped up in the sheer hugeness of the event. Even from my horrible seats (against the venue wall, as far away from the action as humanly possible), I was enthralled, clinging to every one of drummer Patrick Hallahan’s beastly hits, Bo Koster’s slick keyboard fills, Tom Blankenship’s thunderous bass riffs, and Broemel’s nimble fretwork.
James and company did literally everything they were expected to do. There were capes, Spanish bears, goofy, long-winded rants about the universe, and most importantly, some of the world’s finest rock music, played by five of its most passionate and reliable carriers. The new songs will come. My Morning Jacket are living in the moment, taking things one song at a time.