It's always a rare treat to catch a band on the verge of superstardom. The hugely reverbed spaciousness of My Morning Jacket's albums--prior to its creative breakthrough, 2005's Z--always seemed to rob the music of energy, evinced by its stellar live performances and towering songwriting. With Z, the band added two members, diversified its sound and produced an album akin to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot three years earlier. Z was a stunning accomplishment: a stylistic re-imagination that had the band sounding more original and true to itself than ever before. And the live show was all the better for it.
With a beefed-up energy, an embrace of a substantially wider sonic range (from calypso to electronic squibbling to jazz chords), and no aversion to extended two-guitar harmonizing, it's not surprising but hardly fair that some have tagged My Morning Jacket with the "jam band" label. But at the band's Roseland Ballroom performance in November, it quickly became clear that My Morning Jacket's embrace of disparate genres--its extracurricular drifting away from its core sound (most notably in the reggae strut of the drum-machine intro of "Off the Record")--is in no way hokey pastiche or satire found most bands that dabble in unfamiliar sounds.
What puts My Morning Jacket above the genres it's often lumped into--indie rock, Southern rock, jam band, classic rock--is the charismatic frontman, Jim James, possessor of one of the greatest androgynous voices in rock, outstanding songwriter, generous yet assertive bandleader and wicked guitar player. It's unexpected to hear music with such focused, emphatic thematic intent coming from such a scraggly looking feller, and it never approaches noodle-y wanking or self-indulgence. (Well, the large, caped teddy bear onstage was a little precious.)
The stage was notably stark on this tour, which was in support of its live DVD, Okonokos, for which My Morning Jacket performed in an elaborate fantastical forest. At Roseland, the five members spread themselves across the entire stage, focusing the audience's attention on the musicians and their instruments rather than on artificial spectacle.
Emerging from a white screen with lights casting enormous, shadowed outlines of the band members-something that's become de rigeur for bombastic rock bands these days, I guess; it was the third time this year I've this effect-My Morning Jacket launched into "One Big Holiday," the live staple off its 2003 major-label debut, It Still Moves, and Okonokos. Halfway through, the huge curtain dropped to uproarious applause.
James led the band into a prolonged journey through Z in the set's first half, honoring unwritten rock rules by front-loading the set with the newer, shorter songs. My Morning Jacket relied heavily on its material from Z, knocking out eight songs from the album in its ample twenty-one-song, eighty-minute set. Hardly a note seemed out of place; any improvisational tinkering took place in subtle re-approaches to full-band dynamics rather than free-form soloing. The band worked hard in studio and seemed content to simply revel in sharing its labors with a rapturous, sold-out crowd.
The tempo rarely waned from the ecstatic beginning, and the band members ran around the stage and banged their heads, looking more like metal-heads than stoners. The set built to a soaring climax on the backs of patient, bluesy dirges like "Run Thru," which evolved into plucky, fill-heavy conversations between the drummer Patrick Hallahan, the guitars, and the fuzzed-out keyboards.
A brief set-break gave way to a thirty-five-minute, seven-song encore that included "Steam Engine," extended from its studio version into an even more languid guitar excursion (with a monotonous drum solo that was thankfully brief), before closing with a straight-up version of the keyboard-heavy "Anything." "I know we didn't wait too long," James howled, "'cause anytime's a good time to move on."
My Morning Jacket is one of the premier live rock bands in the country and is finally achieving the concert attendance to prove it. The performance at Roseland--the band's first at one of New York City's largest, most maligned rock clubs--marked a significant but brief stepping stone on the inevitable march to Madison Square Garden.
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