Initially sounding more alt-country and Neil Young-esque, the Kentucky-based My Morning Jacket developed a fevered following through the well-crafted songs found on their early albums, The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn. Their relentless touring, which included just about every festival in North America, also gathered inspired listeners to tune in. Open-minded music appreciators were attracted to the group as well, especially on songs such as “Phone Went West”, which, with its groovy, reggae influenced tempo, displayed the band’s eagerness and ability to journey into different genres. And while some fans and critics label them Southern-rock or alt-country, they also embody the adventuress spirit of Radiohead.
But while My Morning Jacket may be moving into Radiohead’s exploration territory, their roots and songwriting style are more akin to Supertramp and other ‘70s rockers. Whereas Radiohead have become interestingly abstract and indefinable, probably sharing more in common with modern jazz than modern rock, My Morning Jacket have branched out in other ways. Jim James, the lead singer, sometimes sounds a bit country, but he likes to take on different characters in song, and often changes his singing style to fit the feel of the music. However, tracks where he engages his falsetto are more fun and funky than their usual examples of good songwriting. At this show, his true charm and talent came through on compositions like “I’m Amazed”, “Librarian”, and “Gideon”, which showcased not only his unique vocal styling, but also the band’s uncanny ability to deliver these songs in a live setting.
Despite sound quality that rapidly declined by the second-hour mark, the group was consistent and polished. The stage lighting was creative, but distracted more than it added. Also, the funky disco “interlude” near the end of the gig was amusing, but, again, distracting—they could’ve played another song. Patrick Hallahan is a powerful, Bonham-like drummer, but this concert gimmick didn’t do him justice. “Two Tone” Tommy, on bass, and Jim James are the most consistent members, starting the group in Louisville, Kentucky in 1998. Carl Broemel’s musicianship on guitar, pedal steel guitar, and saxophone is impressive, and counters James’ wild guitar strumming, which usually comes courtesy of a Gibson Flying V. In contrast to James’ strumming, the modern tone and atmosphere of the band’s compositions from Z and Evil Urges are contributed in large part by keyboardist Bo Koster. But tonight, the DAR Constitution Hall’s poor sound dynamics often muffled and distorted his contributions.
Overall, the band’s set list provided a good survey of their catalog, yet it was heavy, of course, on songs from Z and Evil Urges. Impressively, they played for two hours straight without a break. The show opened up with the title track of their latest album, which set a serious, by-the-book tone for the evening. Musically, the tone was reminiscent of ‘80s prog-rock bands, such as Rush, where each song is played in a form as close to its recorded state as possible. The well-polished band moved through crowd favorites with no distracting jamming or deviations, other than the aforementioned (and thankfully short) disco bit. “Off the Record” was crisp, and James seemed pleased to sing one of his signature songs, often joining “Two Tone” Tommy mid-stage to rock out while facing Hallahan.
After more standards—“Golden”, “I’m Amazed” (which had the seemingly tired crowd up on its feet), and “Dondante”—James offered up the soulful “Librarian”, accompanying himself on guitar. Afterwards, “Gideon”, “Lay Low”, and “Steam Engine” were also near album-perfect performances. After a short break, the encore included “Wordless Chorus”, “Highly Suspicious”, and “One Big Holiday”, which especially stoked the otherwise calm crowd.
Critics tend to take offence to bands they can’t peg. And, yes, My Morning Jacket is a moving target (literally, considering their tireless touring schedule). Luckily, as exemplified by this show and their recent releases, they are moving in new, exciting directions, even if this crowd seemed blinded by their brilliance. If a concert is a give and take communication process between the artist and the audience, each feeding off the other’s energy, then the largely lethargic DC crowd let My Morning Jacket down this time.