My wife walked out of a My Morning Jacket concert in October 2005. It wasn’t really the music that put her off. She found the dark stage adorned with stuffed owls to be a bit spooky. She thought the band members themselves—thrashing around as if they were being electrocuted, hair flying in their faces—were creepy and a little pretentious, too. It was easy to see why she reacted the way she did, but she missed the point nonetheless. A big part of My Morning Jacket’s brilliance, especially in concert, is their ability to fully embrace all the overblown, ridiculous rock’n'roll clichés, yet still get in on the joke.
In terms of presentation and aesthetics, singer/songwriter Jim James and his band hearken back to the ‘70s; a time when the unwashed, hirsute bohemian look was the result not of careful styling as much as the band members’ lack of good personal hygiene skills; when band members could easily be mistaken for roadies and vice versa; when a taste for the mystical was met not with satiric jeering but with studious wonder. These traits, as much as their Kentucky address and taste for epic, often boogying, jam-filled songs about sweaty bars and sweatier passions, have earned My Morning Jacket the tag of “Southern Rockers”.
But they deride that tag for the same reasons my wife didn’t get the complete picture of their show. They’ve seen This Is Spïnal Tap and Almost Famous, and they’re not those bands, either. James’ lyrics, the atmospheric and electronic touches in their music; and, if you pay close attention, their stage presentation all establish them as a solidly 21st century act. Yes, they are passionate. Yes, they are respectful of the sacred traditions and myths of rock’n'roll. But if it suits you, they want you to laugh at their over-the-top aspects. They’re laughing too, figuratively if not literally, and it’s this combination of dead-serious introspection and humor, pompous posturing and near-embarrassing humility, dirty boogie and clean synthesizers, that makes My Morning Jacket such a unique, compelling, and dynamic band.
Okonokos, a concert film shot at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 2005 by veteran music video and live concert film director Sam Erickson, does its job perfectly. That’s because My Morning Jacket do their job perfectly. With relatively new members on keyboards and guitars, the band is in peak form, chugging through a cross-section of their back-catalog as well as most of ‘05’s Z as if they have nothing to lose or prove. And Erickson captures this definitive performance in a definitive manner, accurately recording what’s happening on stage with a bare minimum of editing, effects, and other smoke and mirrors. By essentially putting himself out of the situation, Erickson allows the band’s personality, atmosphere, and power to come charging through. At times Okonokos is so electric it should come with lightning rods.
The Southern angle is played to full effect, as the opening sequence takes place at a antebellum party at a Southern mansion, where the band (in full period dress) mingle with a houseful of merry-makers and stuffed, mounted animals. James is credited with this “concept/story”, but the “story” part is being too generous by far. It’s exactly what you’d expect from My Morning Jacket—poking fun at their image while simultaneously using it to great effect—yet it still puts you in a suitably warped mindset. Then, one partygoer leads an alpaca (!) into the woods…where he stumbles upon the concert.
The owls are there, too; while the ornate, foliage-strewn stage set suggests that the Fillmore has become either an enchanted forest or a Rainforest Café. From there on, it’s my Morning Jacket’s two-hour set, straight-up. The first three songs from Z are played in sequence—a good choice, as they take an efficient trip through the band’s varied range, from the easygoing, soulful “Wordless Chorus” to the full-on power chords of “Gideon”. James’ songs are what happens when a smart and gifted country boy discovers Elton John, Prince, and Pet Shop Boys. Though underpinned by folk and country rock, they never shy away from pop, blues, reggae, or grandeur. And, while many do tend to get blustery, each one contains at least a bit of soul and a lot of atmosphere, thanks to James’ ultra-earnest voice and trademark reverb, neither of which are lost in the live mix. In fact, the performances are all almost completely faithful to the recorded versions, which is a little surprising for a band of such dexterity. Still, the power of the playing and the palpable physical energy are enough to thrill. Only an unnecessarily souped-up “The Way That He Sings” and the use of some “canned” backing vocals break the spell.
Any stage banter has been edited out. Drummer Patrick Hallahan and bassist Two Tone Tommy almost pull off the feat of getting through the entire show with their hair completely obscuring their faces. While James could very well get away with Bono-type posturing, he’s far from it. He’s a self-confessed Jim Henson fan, not surprising when you consider the way he rocks to and fro and bounces around is more Muppet than messiah. Eventually he brandishes his ironic-or-not Gibson Flying V guitar, and the picture of the music-worshipping kid going nuts in his bedroom is complete.
My Morning Jacket songs tend to finish big, and by the time the 10-plus-minute “Dondante” twists and turns to a close, you could be forgiven for wondering if another bombastic coda is really necessary (the answer as evidenced by the following “Run Thru”: “Yes!”). All of that is forgotten, though, by the time you get to the stunning “Steam Engine”, a highlight of It Still Moves and probably the highlight of the show. The joy, wonder, and sadness are broken down into mini-movements; and now James, with his bird’s nest hair leaning over his black Gibson ES; evokes a younger, American Robert Smith; while the music slays you like the Cure used to do. This is followed by the juggernaut “Anytime”, which shows how well the band can work their ethereal magic even within compacted power-pop; and, finally, My Morning Jacket’s pièce de résistance, “Mahgeetah”, which is like the best night of your life in six minutes.
Without any self-mythologizing “behind the scenes” stuff to get in the way, Okonokos is more than just a document. Like the best concert films, it’s also an involving and entertaining experience. In presenting My Morning Jacket just as they are, imperfections and all, it makes the band seem that much stronger.