My Morning Jacket with Neko Case at Bank of America Pavilion, Boston on Sunday, August 14, 2011.
My Morning Jacket is at a crossroads that many bands face, when their burgeoning popularity collides with desires to branch out into new directions. On one hand, the new path could be responsible for the new recruits, while the stalwarts who were there from At Dawn or thereabouts start grumbling about the faux-funk moves of something like "Highly Suspicious," from last year's Evil Urges. That's a long, zig-zagging route from "Strangulation!" This year's Circuital seemed to signal a circling of the wagons, and a return back to their unique mix of quasi-Southern rock, Dylan-esque folk numbers, and snarling rockers, all held together by the soaring vocals of Jim James and cemented by the frighteningly impressive skills of the entire band.
The sold-out crowd certainly didn't mind that the two opening songs were true to the tracklisting, and the lack of camera men to provide projected screen images meant that there was no security barrier, and the good-natured vibes on both sides of the stage carried through the entire night. Mid-show, James declared that Boston has been good to the band, and while it's a fairly predictable gambit for an enthusiastic roar, the other shows I've seen them play are in line with that sentiment, especially last year's reception they received as an opening act for Tom Petty. While the band does get the 'jam band' tag liberally applied, it typically has more to do with James' ragged beard and the band's penchant for long songs. That said, tonight they did rework a couple of songs, grafting on a new intro to "Mahgeetah" until the trademark euphoric vocals gave its identity away. Similarly, they took some chances on what I consider to be their best song (then again, I consider Neil Young's "Danger Bird" to be superior to "Down By The River" or "Like A Hurricane" so make if that what you will), the intensely brooding "Dondante" from 2005's Z. The dramatic lighting was tailor-made for the emotional peaks and valleys, and overall effect stunning as the guitars came crashing through, and eventually receded in favor of Carl Broemel's sax outro. A similar version can be heard on 2006's live Okonokos LP, and it's a song that makes my neck hairs stand at attention whenever it's played.
In total, seven songs were played from Circuital, and the cover art's baleful green eye kept close watch from behind the band. "Outta My System" is a bit of a throwaway, a paean to youthful indiscretions, and "Slow Slow Song" was a good chance to either get a new beer and/or release spent beer. "First Light" sported some heavily distorted bass that pricked up some ears, and the best of the bunch is the somewhat polarizing "Holdin' On To Black Metal," which features a slinky bass line and a hell of a catchy chorus. Bass player "Two Tone" Tommy Blankenship gave a tip of his cap to an actual black metal band earlier this year (Krallice is mentioned halfway through), and he spilled the beans that this song was built around a riff that James discovered from a long-lost Thai song. To close out the night, the encore had some glorious riffage, especially the closer of "One Big Holiday," a song that I'd love to see Drive-By Truckers tackle, but the big surprise was when opener Neko Case strolled out on stage to bring her showcase vocals as the Dolly Parton part to James' Kenny Rogers on "Islands In The Stream," a Barry Gibb-penned number that found widespread fame via the two giants of country music, but without the Black Sabbath riff that My Morning Jacket slyly worked in. Gotta love inspired covers and making the most of the situation.
Speaking of which, Case's drummer had to unexpectedly bail from the tour due to illness, leaving her as an impromptu acoustic band. Well, not totally. Some songs didn't need a percussive propulsion, like the mirrored rich girl/poor girl sketch of "Margaret vs Pauline" or "Maybe Sparrow" but for the self-described "homicidal picnic" of "People Gotta Lot Of Nerve" or the insanely catchy "Hold On, Hold On" benefited from the last-minute fill-in job of Charles Burst, who didn't even get the benefit of a single rehearsal before he was tasked on a few songs. The last time My Morning Jacket played this same venue they sold it out without an opening act, and I'm sure that a fair amount would have preferred a repeat of that; still, Case got a pretty good reception and with good reason. Her vocals and lyrical insights are without peer, and while she suffered a bit from the opening band sound mix syndrome along with sporadic tuning problems (Case opined that the "salty sea air is giving me tuning problems. I should play it with my hook."), she and her band had no problem filling the voluminous tent with some wonderful songs. Her headlining show earlier this year at the cozier confines of the Wilbur Theatre was stronger, but this was certainly enjoyable in its own right.