My Morning Jacket kept the stage dark for most of the first half of their show, with colored lights flashing on at appropriately BIG moments.
This made my notes exceptionally entertaining since, for once, I didn’t have to worry that someone might read them over my shoulder and think I’m not worthy of criticdom. This time, not even I could read them. My blindness set me free—free at last!—from the confines of notetaking that is usually minimized to avoid bothering others. I was able to write feverishly, picking up on important subtleties like “lots of hair” and “still dark”, jottings that might later be transcribed into something insightful:
14 Oct 2005: Theatre of Living Arts Philadelphia
The five members of My Morning Jacket threw their luscious locks and big guitars around with fiery passion on the dark and impenetrable stage. Jim James’ emotive howls flew through the electrified air as though on angels’ wings while we awaited a blast of colored light so that we might behold him. And then the tech gods said, “Let there be light” and there was light. I, shamefaced, hid my notes from view, and looked up to see hair being tossed violently, onstage and off, as though the corresponding heads really, really meant it. And then, again, it went dark as the music simmered down in order to justify light again. And then eventually the lights came up for a while, and we were granted long-term vision—O praise ye—with which to admire James’ poncho, Patrick Hallahan’s trembling drumset, and the three men who strutted out in Viking hats during the waltz-like “Into the Woods”.
I’m being obnoxious with the religious overtones, but I do think there’s something epic about My Morning Jacket’s live concert. For one thing, the way James keens with his hands raised up reminds me of days from Christian past. And then there’s the way James’ vocals are reverbed into a chorus of hair-raising, choir-like tones, and the obvious religious content of songs like “What a Wonderful Man”. But most important, we must consider Jim James’ name, which is the same, almost, as that of the late Jesus-wannabe Jim Jones. Can this mean that MMJ’s James is a messiah come forth to unlock the gates of heaven for we mere mortals?
No, no, theologizing musicians is way too easy (look up “Bob Dylan, the glorification of” for more on this) and I must resist. But My Morning Jacket did save me, at least for a night, from rock-star brattiness and indie-rock cynicism. This band has soul, man. This band has roots. This band has rock and folk and funk, and its new tunes even have dance.
The show went like this. My Morning Jacket came on, played the new album, Z, in its entirety, walked offstage, walked back onstage and played some more. We were thinking, “Oh, it’s the encore, this must be the last song.” Except there were at least six “last” songs before we realized that the break was not a false end but an intermission, and we left because we had people to meet whom we’d contacted during what we’d thought was “encore” phase of the show. So, you understand, right? I don’t know what the actual encore was, if there was one, but the band played on, and on, and on. Which would have been cool if they hadn’t used up “One Big Holiday” as their first post-intermission song.
About half of the Z songs had keys-driven dance bents out of sync with the band’s “Southern rock” (via Louisville) elders, and the group saved its guitar solos. Some from the new batch, like “Off the Record”, came off too bright, almost cheesy, but hey, I’m in love with minor chords. MMJ is allowed to be cheerful, I guess.
But when they weren’t—when they were firing things up into a wall-of-sound frenzy, on “Anytime” and “Dondante”, whose repetitive build-up tested my limited jam-band patience until things started to pick up—the outcome was gloriously intense. These are the songs that shine in concert. While more idiosyncratic tunes like “Wordless Chorus”, which pitted keyboardist Bo Koster’s syncopated jabs against James’ echoed keens, showcased MMJ’s impressive compositional range and mood, they’re little more than strong studio songs. The band was at its best when it dug its heels in and packed a wallop.
Case in point: “One Big Holiday”, which overpowered everything that came before and after. A song made for live performance if ever there was one, “One Big Holiday” has reached, like, “Layla” status in my mind—it’s just so fucking good. That authoritative drum intro, that rippling riff, that tease of a pause before biting into the gritty solo: James and company should have ended on this instead of dragging on for at least a half hour longer. Such a move might have been too predictable, but, well, all else paled.