No one can accuse Jim James of lacking showmanship, that’s for sure.
Throughout his half-full Wednesday night gig at Lawrence’s Liberty Hall, the shaggy shaman slid and pranced around the stage with the bravado of a drunk lounge singer; he winked at members of the front row and extended an E.T.-like finger to touch theirs; he proudly displayed and then bowed down to a golden teddy bear statue; and he randomly threw a towel over his head for several songs.
Confidence is not lacking with this one, to say the least.
James came out in a suit and tie- as did the rest of his band- and took his place behind the mic which was set up with a stand-mounted Flying V. There were no hellos or other pleasantries, other than a knowing, mischievous look to those in the front row.
The show started a bit after 9:00 with State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.), the first track off James’ solo effort, Regions Of Light And Sounds Of God. It’s a slow burner that starts softly before building into a bass thumping funk jam. And of course, there’s James’ floaty and piercing reverb-soaked vocals that upstage just about everything all the time.
The set list stuck mostly to the songs off of Regions all night, but with more extended jams and breaks, including a several minute long “drum circle” that was followed by a pretty technical and fluid trap set solo that showed off some serious speed, but not in an overbearing way.
One thing that stuck out to me over the course of the show is how much pre-recorded material James and his band use. Not only were there the now-standard bleeps and bloops, but there were also canned guitar lines (both acoustic and electric), keyboards, electronic drums – you get the picture, just about everything.
Most noticeable of all, though, were the piped in saxophone solos. Midway through the third song James strapped on a tenor sax and pretended to blow some notes in a long outro. Which was kind of weird. And he did it several more times as the show went on. I’m not saying he didn’t play some of the sax stuff live, but I can guarantee that the majority of it was pre-recorded.
And while utilizing backing tracks is certainly not uncommon, nor does it (usually) taint my enjoyment of a show, when it’s so blatant and overbearing like this was, it can be a big turn off.
That’s not to say that the band was not pro – because they were. They were locked in, deeply layering a sonic feather bed on which James could float his impeccable falsetto.
That being said, some of the best moments were when James’ voice was the highlight, not the endless layers of sounds. To kick off A New Life, the fourth track off the album, the guitarist strapped on an acoustic guitar and instead of strumming, patted the strings with the palm of his hand to create a muffled, percussive effect. Coupled with James’ echoey croon, this became one of the best songs of the night.
I want a new life/ a new life / a new life with you
Similarly successful was James’ version of the My Morning Jacket song Wonderful (The Way I Feel), that featured quietly soaring vocals dodging and darting up and down the staff to close out the number.
But some songs fell flat, mostly due to the endless amounts of white noise drone that backed many of the tunes, along with some lengthy vamps that felt a bit like fillers.
Certainly – and as expected – this was nothing close to a full-fledged MMJ show, energy-wise or otherwise.
No, this was a relaxed night of sipping cocktails and perusing the psych-soul distractions of a wildman who confessed several years ago to Rolling Stone, “I’ve gotten tired of rock & roll sounds.”
Hopefully this side project will get that feeling out of his system.