Monday, June 23, 2008

No Longer Laying Low: My Morning Jacket Blows Away Radio City

By: David Schultz

In all the talk, hype and buzz currently swirling around My Morning Jacket, everyone appears loathe to say anything negative about the band. Given all the love being showered on the band, no one is willing to go against the grain and say anything critical lest they be ostracized. Until now. At their Friday night show at New York City’s hallowed Radio City Music Hall, one thing became quite evident. Jim James is absolutely horrible at sliding across a stage on his knees. He tried it twice and came close to tearing the ligaments in both knees each time. It was simply awkward and dreadful . . . and that is pretty much the only thing you could criticize about their nearly three hour show. Everything else was damn near perfect.

About three months ago, I was able to see My Morning Jacket at SXSW from right behind the rail at the Austin Music Hall. My seats for Radio City Music Hall weren’t that good, in fact I think the difference in distance could best be expressed in yards rather than feet in terms of both length and height. From this vantage point, it was quite clear that proximity to the band poses little difficulty for pulling the audience into the show. While the excellent sound and acoustics of Radio City surely help, My Morning Jacket remains one of the most enthralling, engaging bands playing today.

There is something about My Morning Jacket that comes alive when you see them in person; it’s an intangible factor that simply doesn’t get conveyed in the studio or captured on the numerous bootlegs that can be found on the InterWeb. Every beat from Patrick Hallahan’s drums resounded boldly throughout the hall and he and “Two Tone” Tommy give many of MMJ’s songs a menacing undercurrent of tension that crackles in a live setting. Without being refined in the techniques of Rock Star 101, Jim James has an offbeat, earnest charisma that most lead singers would kill for. He may one of the few rock stars that can get away with making a cape look cool. Addressing the crowd in his now signature deliberate drawl, he’s reached the point where people are hanging on his every clearly enunciated word. Before launching into a beautifully rendered solo version of “Bermuda Highway,” he expressed how excited he was to be on the very stage where Aretha Franklin played a couple months earlier before bending down to pat the ground where she stood. It was a gesture that resounded in its lack of affectation; even if James didn’t come close to covering the actual acreage the Queen of Soul now covers. Perhaps the one drawback to James’ persona is that when guitarist Carl Broemel works one of his hypnotically repetitive riffs or tears into a guitar solo seemingly torn from some inner torment, it’s tempting to look over at James to see if he’s the one playing.

On the heels of their always well-received performance at Bonnaroo and the release of Evil Urges, their long awaited follow-up to Z, the Radio City show kicked off My Morning Jacket’s summer tour but marks their last U.S. appearance until mid-August. Much of the first hour of the show roughly mimicked the set list from their Austin showcase with the songs having a slightly more polished feel. Jim James surely made good use of the access to Radio City’s opera box style platforms that line the sides of the theater. On multiple occasions, James sprinted as far and as high as he could up towards the balcony – once to escape a couple hyperactive female fans that flounced their way on to the stage – to dig the view from up high and solo a bit from the rafters.

On songs like “It Beats For You” and “Steam Engine,” Hallahan works the snare drums like Nick Mason and with “Two Tone” playing a pulsing bass and Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster adding the right flourishes, My Morning Jacket creates the same dreamlike atmosphere as Pink Floyd, albeit at a quicker pace. When people talk about the invigorating feel of a My Morning Jacket show, it’s in large part to their ability to mesmerize the crowd with the dual emotional punch of James’ higher-toned vocals and the band’s ability to create a enveloping sound that reverberates around the arena and through you soul. The classic vibe of newer songs like "I'm Amazed" and the outstanding "Aluminum Park" are overpowering and they have a deft ability for easing into powerful instrumental stretches that bound along with Crazy Horse abandon, notably the multiple mood changes and solos contained in “Run Thru.” Even when they pause for reflective material like “What A Wonderful Man” and “Golden” or easy, loping material like “Sec Walkin” and “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt 1,” the visceral impact of the song hardly declines. Even though they had been going for close to three hours by the time they hit the final notes of “One Big Holiday,” they had the crowd eager for more. The excitement spilled into the austere Radio City lobby as the lingering crowd simply didn’t want to leave the building after the astounding show.

The longer a band has been around changes how the audience listens to their songs, especially if the passing of time has created a mystique around the band or built significance around a certain song. It’s hard to imagine that there was a point in time when Led Zeppelin could play “Stairway To Heaven” without it being ZEPPELIN playing “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN” or that The Who could ever have played “Baba O’Riley” to a crowd that didn’t already know every little word and nuance with great intimacy. I can only imagine that it was something like this Friday’s show. During My Morning Jacket’s encore, while they moved through surefire live set pieces like “Dondante,” “Lay Low,” “Run Thru” and “Anytime,” there was a feeling that these songs will become increasingly relevant as time passes and that one day an unborn generation of fans will someday be sitting in a theater entranced and jazzed because MY MORNING JACKET is playing “DONDANTE.”

Even if My Morning Jacket aren’t the long-awaiting saviors of rock and roll we’ve been waiting for, bloggers, critics and just about everyone else seem perfectly willing to put forth a united front on this point for the time being. At the very least, if you don’t know about this band or Evil Urges, just smile and nod approvingly if either are mentioned in hip mixed company and you’ll avoid the looks of scorn and derision.

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Grace Potter Rocking The Gear circa 2006!