Sunday, September 7, 2008

What a Wonderful Band

It was early in My Morning Jacket's 2.5+ hour set on Friday night at Festival Pier. Singer/guitarist Jim James was wearing a cape atop his head, framing his wild mane of hair and full beard, while behind him the mist from the smoke machine was pushed across the stage by the winds that were to precede Hurricane Hanna. It was a an image that walked the line between awesome and laughable, as though someone had brought to life a mystic from a fantasy-novel cover and handed him a Flying-V guitar. It's this balance between silliness and rock-god majesty that encapsulates the experience of seeing James and his band play.

At risk of hyperbole, My Morning Jacket is the greatest pure rock band that I have ever seen perform. Their reputation as a jam band is earned in some respects, since they have an affinity for stretching their songs out live with extended solos. At the same time, though, the band's crack rhythm section of "Two-Tone" Tommy on bass and (especially) drummer Patrick Hallahan keep the songs grounded; you know that these guys are going somewhere with their improvisations and not just dicking around for a few minutes.

I still haven't spent a lot of time with Evil Urges, but I have to say that the contrast between the songs off of that record and the rest of the band's catalog is striking. The new songs have a much more groovy, soulful feel; even the much-maligned "Highly Suspicious" really came alive, with the funky backbeat offsetting the vocal schizophrenia of James's Prince-falsetto-meets-metal-growl. The last time I saw MMJ play, I had to eventually move back from the stage to escape the moshing, but this time it seemed more likely that some pansexual orgy would break out.

As the band played their encore, a light rain started to fall, the droplets reflecting in the spotlights like a science-fiction starfield. On the other side of the Ben Franklin bridge, fireworks lit up the sky. It was an lovely moment, and I thought back to my amused reaction to James as a rock-and-roll wizard earlier in the evening; maybe the guy had some mystical powers after all. The band closed out their set with a pair of epic rockers from It Still Moves: "Run Thru" and "One Big Holiday." And as the guys left the stage and Vera Lynn's voice came over the speakers singing "We'll Meet Again," I could only think, I certainly hope so.

Supplementary Materials:
  • In case you don't trust my opinion (an understandable reaction), here are a couple of near-orgasmic reactions to My Morning Jacket's Bonnaroo set earlier this year.
  • WXPN was broadcasting the concert, but I'm not sure if they'll have it available on-demand. If not, there are a couple of YouTube folks who already have some decent-quality videos posted of the show.
  • The band's Okonokos DVD is a great recording of a performance in San Francisco during the tour behind Z. If you're looking for an introduction to what the guys are capable of doing in concert, it's a good place to start. And, in case I was somehow unclear in my drooling praise earlier, I highly recommend attending an MMJ concert the next chance you get.

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