Photo: Danny Clinch / Big Hassle

Jim James Rocks for Peace and Justice at the Fillmore

Jim James stakes a claim as one of modern rock's most "woke" songwriters with a vibrant performance that conjures visions of the Fillmore's glory days.

It’s the last weekend of June and summer concert tours are moving into full swing. My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James has a compelling co-headlining run lined up with the Claypool Lennon Delirium, but he’s mixing in a few solo headliner gigs as well. This includes a prestigious date here on this Saturday night at the Fillmore in San Francisco, a prime location to witness a charismatic performer who brings his own llamas on tour for green room support (as seen in the “My Morning Straightjacket” episode of American Dad.)

Rock stars who have been immortalized in cartoon animation are a special breed, with Jim James reaching that rare air in a 2009 episode in which protagonist Stan evolves from a total square into a Jim James fanatic after being turned on to the music of My Morning Jacket by his teenage daughter. As with countless fans in real life, Stan is won over by James’ angelic voice and soulful songwriting.

The Fillmore is packed with such fans tonight, but first, there’s the Fillmore tradition of a little known opening band that turns out to be well-worth showing up early for. Billing themselves on Soundcloud as “psychedelic indie dream pop from Los Angeles”, Amo Amo deliver a compelling set that feels like a great match with tonight’s headliner. Lead vocalist Lovelle Femme has got an angelic voice of her own and has her mojo working here in clear appreciation of the opportunity to perform at rock’s most sacred venue. Amo Amo closes the set in climactic fashion with the dynamic song “Antidote”, as Femme sings of working to get her body and mind in synch while the band lays down an infectious groove that fits the Fillmore so good.

It’s a pleasant surprise then when Jim James and his band hit the stage with Femme and one of her bandmates as backing vocalists. The band comes out rocking with “Over and Over” from James’ 2018 album Uniform Distortion, a tune that features an inspiring message about overcoming the dark forces that have America on a dystopian path here in 2019.

“We have a chance — right now — to get involved and change history, to put an end to the seemingly endless cycles of war and racism that continue to divide and conquer us as a people,” James says on his official YouTube page for the song. “We have a chance to heal the wounds of slavery and injustice to the native peoples created when America was born by opening our arms and our hearts and using the power of our voice and our vote to say we are tired of this cycle happening OVER and OVER again… we want a new cycle. A life cycle more in tune with nature than constantly against it. One of peace. We want freedom. We want equality. We want love. and we want it NOW.”

It’s the type of uplifting and empowering message that the San Francisco music scene was founded on back in the Fillmore’s early heyday in the 1960s, with James staking a claim in recent years as one of the 21st century’s heirs to the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture peace movement. “Out of Time” is another gem from Uniform Distortion, with a fuzzy guitar sound that perhaps owes a bit to Neil Young and Crazy Horse but which James makes sound fresh and vital rather than “behind the times or ahead of the times” as he questions himself in the song.

The acoustic-oriented “A New Life” from James’ 2013 album Regions of Light and Sound of God brings things down a bit before the band gets back to rocking out with “Just a Fool”, an infectious number that keeps the good vibes flowing. A peak moment occurs with the new album’s “Throwback”, a catchy rocker that features James’ trademark heavenly vocal stylings along with some of his most brilliantly insightful lyrics about modern times. Inspired by conflicting emotions while scrolling through someone’s social media account and seeing them grow younger while the clock is actually ticking forward, the song taps deep into the modern zeitgeist.

“Don’t get me wrong — social media is an amazing tool… but i think we should look at it more like a tool, like a hammer you pick up for a little while to do a job, and then you PUT IT DOWN,” James says on the song’s YouTube page. “You don’t sit there and keep hammering away or else pretty soon your entire world would be destroyed and fall apart! And I feel like that is exactly what is happening right before our very eyes to this precious real beautiful human-filled earth. So let’s WAKE EACH OTHER UP PEOPLE! Let’s stand up against injustice and use this tool of social media to fight for peace and love and equality! Let’s throwback for a minute but try and live in the NOW for a better future…”

The uniform depth of Uniform Distortion continues to reveal itself on “No Secrets”, a melodic mid-tempo number with a little less fuzz and some more atmospherics with the angelic backing vocals from Femme that continue to elevate the set. “Here in Spirit” from 2016’s Eternally Even album is another highlight, with the stage lights being dimmed to create an after hours vibe as if the audience has been invited into James’ living room for a late night session where he sings of fighting injustice and staying in touch with “all those who came before…”

“No Use Waiting” brings the first half of the show to a rousing peak with another fuzzed out high-energy jam, where James sings “We better get together while we still got time” (bringing Jefferson Airplane’s counterculture classic “We Can Be Together” to mind.) But wait, is the band really exiting the stage after just an hour? It must be a mirage and so it is as they quickly return for five more songs and then a four-song encore sequence. More luscious psychedelic fuzz rock ensues on “All in Your Head”, with great vocal interplay between James and Femme.

James rips off some hot licks on guitar during a jam on “Yes to Everything”, as the band continues to dive deep into the organic rock sound that has permeated the show. The lyrics get deep on the bluesy “Same Old Lie”, with James singing, “It’s the same old lie they tell you when you’re little, Try to make you forget just what it is you’re really made of, And follow on just like most everyone, But you and me, we ain’t like most everyone, Pure individual, bright as the shining sun, And sure as hell we know where it is we come from…”

Things get mystical on the set closer “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Part 2”, with some existential pondering that feels like it could be a soundtrack tune in Preacher or 12 Monkeys. Here James takes the audience on a retro ride through the Gen-X zeitgeist of grappling with mid-life crisis issues while feeling like we’re still in a momentous era with the opportunity to generate great changes for a monumental generational legacy.

James opens the encore big with a solo acoustic rendition of My Morning Jacket’s anthemic “I’m Amazed”, recalling his performance of the tune just across the Golden Gate Bridge during the 2017 Sound Summit at Mt. Tamalpais (in support of Phil Lesh & Bob Weir.) James won extra counterculture cred there when Weir joined him for a fantastic trio of tunes to close his set, including an ad-libbed version of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” in which Weir threw down the gauntlet against Donald Trump’s foul domain of greed and avarice as he sang, “There’s a man with bright orange-hair, bringing down a climate of fear…” When James sings, “Where is the justice?”, he speaks for all of those taken aback by the Trump regime’s disturbing assault on humanity.

A majestic solo take on My Morning Jacket’s “Bermuda Highway” sustains the heady vibe still further, with James delivering a shimmering performance that has the audience mesmerized. The band them comes back to close out the show with a double shot from Regions of Light and Sound of God. “Of the Mother Again” delivers a simmering meditation on connecting with the source and Mother Earth that gets everyone feeling groovy, before the band takes the audience on a glorious sonic journey with “State of the Art – A.E.I.O.U”.

It’s been a stellar show, with the slew of vibrant performances from Uniform Distortion demonstrating one of the best albums of 2018 (and no wonder that James released a companion version of the same songs performed acoustically with Uniform Clarity.) In an era where the greedy powers that be seek to plunge humanity into an Orwellian class war and climate crisis nightmare, rock ‘n’ roll remains one of America’s best weapons for awakening the masses to socially conscious activism and Jim James has staked a claim as one of the modern counterculture’s wokest purveyors of the art form.