My Morning Jacket albums are concise volumes, recalling '70s rock anthems that wailed but kept excess to a minimum. MMJ's concert at Red Rocks last night, however, was another thing entirely. Sprawling like an octopus's tentacles across three hours of noodly goodness, this concert was not one for casual fans.
The show began innocently, almost conservatively, with New Orleans native Trombone Shorty and South Carolina-via-Seattle beard-rockers Band of Horses. The latter's set showcased an act playing it safe, performing songs as they appeared verbatim on its three albums. Frontman Ben Bridwell's only between-song banter? "We've been Band of Horses, and we still are," is indicative of the terse vibe the band generated.
My Morning Jacket emerged fifteen minutes after the final chords of "The Funeral." Casual, confident, and without any fanfare, Jim James and company simply picked up and played. "At Dawn," the first song from its namesake 2001 album, began the set. James strummed an acoustic guitar briskly, wearing some weird blue-red dashiki/cape-type thing while singing the song exactly as he did in the studio eleven years back.
It was an unassuming way to begin the set. A few minutes later, as the sun went down and the first strong wafts of marijuana floated through the audience, the quintet followed up with another At Dawn standout, "Xmas Curtain." James had shed his Tibetan superhero cape and loosened up a bit. Hair began shaking, guitar lines got skronkier and the drum riser became a jungle gym for James to climb onto, his electric guitar pealing through "I'm Amazed" and "It Beats 4 U."
This is a group of musicians in their prime. The Louisville, Kentucky, band that famously used to record in a grain silo (for extra reverb) is now a bona fide arena rock outfit. MMJ took a huge leap forward in 2004 and 2005, first with a lineup change that brought Bo Koster and Carl Broemel into the fold, and then with the release of Z, the band's most commercially viable album to date.
Whereas previously (on personal favorites The Tennessee Fire, At Dawn and It Still Moves), MMJ invoked the spirit of Gram Parsons' and/or Galaxie 500 on nearly every track, the latter part of the 2000s showed a group becoming flashier and more challenging -- even if occasionally to its detriment.
Just as all babies aren't born equally cute, not all MMJ experiments will show the band's knack for creating pop hooks and meditative slow-burners. Exhibit A: "Highly Suspicious," the criminally tacky quasi-disco song from 2008's Evil Urges. The laser beams shot out from the stage lights. The audience's gyrations en masse looked like hipsters being teargassed while hula-hooping.
I felt like Odysseus tied to the mast, wherein if I gave myself over to the song, I would die.
It was just awful.
Thankfully, redemption wasn't far behind. "Golden" and "Steam
Roller Engine" were stretched and pulled well beyond the album version. It's tasteful, though. Gentle picking and lightly brushed drums, with some pedal steel guitar and organ chords...this is what My Morning Jacket is supposed to sound like. Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell was invited onstage for a cover of George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity," and right after, the dance vibe comes back (albeit in more classy fashion) with It Still Moves opener "Magheetah."
By midnight, My Morning Jacket has become infinitely weirder than it had been two-and-a-half hours before. The band trudged through "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt. 2," wherein James donned a towel (or cape?) over his head, and a few minutes later, with some synth-type instrument hanging from his neck, looked uncannily like Darth Vader.
MMJ finally reminded us that they had not completely lost its minds, and concluded the set with a cover of The Band's "It Makes No Difference" and its own stellar "Phone Went West." An encore later, the group left the stage, looking remarkably less exhausted than the capacity crowd at Red Rocks for which it has just played.
Personal Bias: The first time I heard Band of Horses, I thought they were My Morning Jacket. Same thing when I first heard Fleet Foxes, too.
Random Detail: When my ladyfriend and I drove up to the venue in my beat-to-shit old '79 Ford truck, I asked the parking attendant where to park. His reply: "You've got the dopest truck I've seen in a hot minute, so you can go wherever you want."
By the way: You can download a recording of last night's show by emailing email@example.com. In the subject line, type "Red Rocks 12."
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