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Ben Kweller + My Morning Jacket

(17 Jul 2002: Emos — Austin, Texas)


Ben Kweller
My Morning Jacket


Anytime I see a show in the unforgiving pierce of daylight, I feel an underlying sense of judgment at being blotto while somewhere families are eating Stovetop and watching the market crash in genetic camaraderie. I feel that even worse when it’s an all ages show. It’s not that I have anything against the little sea monkeys, it’s just that invariably it gets me thinking that most of my favorite writers had already succumbed to TB at my age (a robust 28) and that, even with electrolysis, I’ll never be beloved in the way that Brandy is. Top that off with the show being outside under a tent, which in Texas in July is a bit like asking someone to jump in an anchovies can while you weld the lid shut, and you have what could be the ingredients for a lousy time. Fortunately for me, the music was so good that I instantly forgot my small mound of broken teen idol dreams and the oppressive southern gothic steam bath.


When My Morning Jacket took to the stage at Emo’s, I was expecting to kick back and enjoy the space country tide of their latest album, At Dawn. Instead, we were treated to a raucous display of cock chord rock ‘n’ roll cut with Jim James haunted howl. I kept thinking that this is what it would sound like for Black Sabbath to channel Hank Williams. Even the porch swing “Lowdown” was given a volted up treatment of trance rock fury. James’ vocals on record already sound like an aria given by Neil Young, but only live did I get a full sense of how warm, high and wide his range was. That man has pipes fit for a Hee Haw version of Soul Train. During the finale, the group riffed out a song while hanging from the overhead lighting, jumping off the drums, and generally playing the part of a seedy L.A. metal band without the eyeliner. If only it had been dark, I would have borrowed a lighter and then tried to get back stage by flashing my titties to one of the roadies. These boys belted out epic rock ballads with bruising intensity. I can safely say that My Morning Jacket’s scorching live gig set the bar for the rest of the shows that I see this year.


Ben Kweller would be hard pressed to follow the eye-widening thunder of his opening act. To his credit, he didn’t even try to out rock My Morning Jacket. Instead, he tried to satisfy by understating and spreading his pop charms without pretension. The transition between acts was made shakier by Kweller coming out and tuning many of the instruments while making mumbling stoner chitchat with the audience. The fawn-legged intro was cemented with an imploded cover of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” where Kweller’s filo dough vocals sounded eerily like PeeWee Herman stepping in to front Wilco. I needed another beer.


By the time I returned with a new Dos Equis, Kweller had recovered his momentum and blasted through a rowdy rendition of “Wasted and Ready” and sweetly hushing harmonies of “Family Tree”. One of the set’s high points, a rowdy “Commerce, TX” pumped its way through the crowd with it’s jaunty tale of staying drunk and making it out alive in a small Texan town. “How it Should Be”, the album Sha Sha‘s opening track, was tarted up with some vocal emoting, but it did showcase Kweller’s voice at its best, when it sounds like Lou Reed with a cold talking to you from the kitchen. That’s a good thing. Some of the other downbeat numbers were clutching and sincere, especially “Falling” with its Ben Folds Five keyboard bobbing. Kweller is a good lyricist, with more hard knock wisdom that you would expect from such a greenhorn. All in all, his performance was a good souped-up run through of an album in which every one in the audience seemed to be mouthing the words.


I can pinpoint the moment during the show that I was smitten with Ben Kweller. While tuning some guitar that, as he informed the audience, is notorious fickle and needs to be constantly re-adjusted, he launched into a improvisational song about Austin, the curfew at Emo’s, My Morning Jacket’s set, and people in the crowd. Not only was it hilarious and pretty damn impressive for an off-the-cuff song, but it was the sort of everyman gesture that tugs at your heart. If I were a thirteen-year-old girl, I would be writing his and my name on my Trapper Keeper with lots of x’s, hearts, and speculations about forever.


Because it was an early show, Kweller’s set seemed to end a bit quickly, by no fault of his own, and people shuffled out so that Emo’s could usher in another set of bands for the people who want to get properly sloshed under the cover of darkness. With one foot in the bag, I made it home completely satisfied by seeing a set of musicians who will be making great music for years to come. Not to mention, it was nice to pass out early so that it was that much easier to wake up for my wage slavery with a refreshing hangover and a few incredible flashes of song looping through my head.

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