There may not be a more interesting personality in rock music right now than My Morning Jacket’s enigmatic front man, Jim James.
During his band’s Wednesday night concert at the Uptown Theater, James mentioned that the brightly painted interior of the venue made him feel like he was in a small village in Mexico. (Maybe that was because of the heat and humidity inside the Uptown. Or maybe that’s just James.)
He raised his open palms to the sky in what looked like a pagan rain dance while spewing guttural shrieks at the sky. And at times he wore a hooded cape that looked like it came straight out of Sleepy Hollow.
Obviously he and his band have ample style, but their substance is what really sets them apart as one of the premier live acts around right now. And Wednesday night they delivered big time.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of openers, Delta Spirit, a California roots-rock act that I was really looking forward to. But their problem had nothing to do with the songs they performed – indeed, lead singer Matt Vasquez’s unique vocals carry his band.
No, the problem was that they only played about four songs before announcing that they had to cut it short to get on the road to Chicago. What?
Why even have an opener if they have an 8:30 curfew?
To be fair, the few songs that Delta Spirit did play were great, especially a touching version of “Ransom Man” that MMJ’s Bo Koster and Carl Broemel sat in on. But I wanted more, and so did everyone else I talked to.
No matter, though.
The lights went down and Jim James appeared onstage in his trademark overcoat with wild hair and big, bushy beard. As the opening chords of “Victory Dance” echoed over the crowd – the first track off MMJ’s newest album – everyone forgot all about the opener’s non-set.
James’ distinctive reverb-soaked vocals sounded large as ever inside the cavernous Uptown while the strange half bird call, half fanfare call of the opening track announced the band’s arrival.
“Should I close my eyes and prophesize/ Hoping maybe someday come…” lilted James, the shaman.
As has been the norm on this tour, the band followed that song with the next track off the new album, the jaunty, staccatoed “Circuital,” which features a softly repeating rhythmic guitar pluck before unleashing into full-on rock outro with buzzing guitars and pounding bass.
By this time, I think it’s safe to say that everyone in attendance was hot and sweaty in the Uptown’s muggy, 90 degree haze. And ready for more.
How much more? How about a full 2 hours? That’ll do the trick.
In general, the first half of My Morning Jacket’s set was an exercise in tension and release. Some slower, softer songs led into rockers and back again.
The second half saw the band crank up the energy a bit more. As has been the case when I’ve seen these guys in the past, their entire show slowly smolders more and more until, by the end, smoke turns to fire to finish on the highest of high notes.
Throughout, Jim James was, well, Jim James – part medicine man, part good ol’ boy, and part hard rocker – as he tossed his mane of hair around the stage executing precision karate kicks, climbing up on the drum riser, and exorcising his own personal demons in front of a couple thousand interested onlookers.
I wouldn’t have been that surprised if James had set something on fire.
One of the night’s highlights came midway through, as My Morning Jacket hit their stride with the chunky delay guitar texturing in “It Beats 4 U.” Lead guitarist Carl Broemel seems to know exactly what his role is with this band.
Displaying an awesome Euro mullet that I’m going to go ahead and grow myself, Broemel stepped to the front of the stage, rock god style, when the moment called for it, and retreated to the side when it didn’t. At times -especially considering My Morning Jacket’s big sound – it’s surprising how little Broemel plays, but that’s not a bad thing at all.
It’s really a compliment to MMJ that they can be sparse without becoming bare, and still keep their momentum.
As the band rolled into the next song, “Honest Man,” all the stage lights suddenly went out, leaving the theater in complete darkness as MMJ forged on. Though the lighting issue wasn’t planned, it didn’t seem to bother James and his cohorts who used the blackout to build even more energy.
Eventually, the lights came back on and order was restored.
Just before leaving the stage for the first time, another highlight came in the form of the odd new song “Holdin’ On To Black Metal,” a down and dirty take on soul Satanism with horn blasts and big choir choruses.
Is Jim James the devil? Maybe.
“Oh black metal so misunderstood/ Deep black service under Lucifer’s hood/ Black metal steals souls young, enuff is enuff / Wants refills out of Lucifer’s cup…”
When the set ended, MMJ promptly returned to the stage for a long encore that culminated predictably with the closer, “One Big Holiday” that features everything that this band is known for: intricate rhythmic layered guitars, soaring vocal lines, and hard hitting chunky guitars. Oh yeah, and bass that pounds the air out of your lungs.
Overall, a great show, as expected.
The only drawback for me was that at times the sound got a little muddled. But that’s to be somewhat expected at a venue like the Uptown with a band like MMJ that uses a ton of reverb.
Was this the best show I’ve seen this summer?
No. I think I have to rank their Wakarusa performance ahead of this one, as well as Arcade Fire’s epic set at Starlight a few months ago.
Most everyone I talked to afterwards was thoroughly impressed, exhausted, hot, sweaty, and even more of a fan than they had been before the show. Except for one guy who was disappointed that My Morning Jacket is not Bon Iver.
Weird, right? They’re not Wilco either, but hey, whuddyagonnado?
As for me? I’ll worship at Jim James’ funky alter any day.
Off The Record
Outta My System
It Beats 4 U
Slow Slow Tune
Smokin From Shootin
End of Run Thru
Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2
Holdin’ On to Black Metal
The Day Is Coming
One Big Holiday