My Morning Jacket

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Watching My Morning Jacket is a roller coaster ride—epic rock songs are mixed in with lonesome-sounding ballads, and brief moments of rock n’ roll fury are separated by quieter times that allow James to show off his haunting vocals, soaring melodies, and overall songwriting brilliance.

(NOV. 22, 2005)

Preceded by the buzz surrounding their new album Z and a growing reputation as one of the most kick-ass live bands on the planet, My Morning Jacket took Mississippi Nights by storm on their latest tour: the club was packed (on a Tuesday night), and fans were undoubtedly curious to see how the new material would sound in the live setting. While the raw, minimally produced, and extended jams on the band’s 2003 breakthrough album It Still Moves made it easy to envision live versions, the songs on Z come with a little mystery. To record the album, the band traveled to New York and teamed up with producer John Leckie (of Radiohead fame), and the result is more compact, studio-oriented songs that further distance the band from its early southern rock and alt-country classifications. 

Z is an experimental step away from It Still Moves, which sounds like five guys just plugging in and rocking out in a Kentucky grain silo (not a bad thing—don’t get me wrong), and I was anxious to see how the band would weave the new material into the live show. It didn’t take long to find out. After a nice solo set from Centromatic’s Will Johnson, the band came out with Z’s first two tracks, “Wordless Chorus,” during which frontman Jim James showed off his vocal range, and “It Beats for You.” Both songs were accompanied by an captivating visual interplay between darkness and flashing stage lights. 

Although “It Beats for You” is a compact, solo-free song, the chorus’ crunching guitar chords teased those waiting to witness one of the band’s trademarks: the ability to flat-out rock harder and louder than anyone. When My Morning Jacket rocks, they rock furiously, and the two tracks from Z led perfectly into “One Big Holiday,” the quintessential epic from It Still Moves. Complete with an extended jam, wailing guitar solos, and flailing hair, “One Big Holiday” is big entertainment, and the song gave me an appreciation for how onstage aesthetics can enhance a live show. Colored by wild, thrashing, uncontrollable hair, James’ flying-V guitar, and flashing lights, the band creates a powerful rock n’ roll visual. Even though you know these carefully calculated moments are coming, you’re still blown away when they arrive.  

One of the keys to the band’s rock n’ roll aesthetic is drummer Patrick Hallahan, whose aggressive performance is reminiscent of a young Dave Grohl abusing the skins in the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video; I’m not making any musical comparisons, just noting that the dude is an absolute beast, he’s fun to watch, and I would hate to be his drum kit. This isn’t some Tommy Lee–esque, style-over-substance extravaganza, however; Hallahan is an accomplished artist whose work on the ballads is equally impressive, and whose range of talent is a perfect match for James’ diverse song repertoire.

Throughout the night, the band showcased this range—hard rockers such as “One Big Holiday” and “Run Thru” were mixed in with quieter numbers such as the folk-ish “Golden.” Although the night consisted mainly of tracks from Z, such as “What a Wonderful Man,” “Dondante,” and “Lay Low,” a few old favorites also made their way onto the setlist, such as “The Bear” and “The Way He Sings.” Sadly Z’s catchiest single, the reggae-meets-soul-meets-psychadelia gem “Off the Record,” was the night’s biggest disappointment—it didn’t play well in the live setting, and the outtro sounded more like an obnoxious skipping record than the catchy, hypnotic riff featured on the album.

The band put on an incredible show, but I still ended up leaving slightly disappointed. You see, watching My Morning Jacket is a roller coaster ride—epic rock songs are mixed in with lonesome-sounding ballads, and brief moments of rock n’ roll fury are separated by quieter times that allow James to show off his haunting vocals, soaring melodies, and overall songwriting brilliance.

When you ride this type of rollercoaster, you’re always craving one more peak, and I was a little disappointed when the band’s encore of “At Dawn,” “Dark,” and “Anytime” concluded at 10:45 p.m. without “Magheeta,” their standard show-closer, and one they’ve been playing on this tour in other cities. The club was packed and ready to explode, but I’m over it—in hindsight, my frustration with My Morning Jacket was probably unjustified. It’s simply a testament to the incredibly high expectations the band has created for itself. They’re great performers, and they certainly left us wanting more. That’s a good thing… I guess.

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