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I'm not sure of the exact moment when My Morning Jacket became the best live band in the world, but I'll never forget the instant I realized it. It was 12:10 a.m. on a foggy New Year's morning in San Francisco; 2006 had just flowed into 2007. In honor of the holiday, the band transformed that city's Fillmore stage into a faux–Oregon Trail campground, replete with a forest-green pastoral scrim, fake snow and ice, stuffed coyotes, skulls, pine shrubs, boulders, rusty lanterns, and skeletons. Dressed as Western pioneers (save for drummer Patrick Hallahan, who donned an Indian warrior headdress and face paint), the band members, led by a Deadwood-looking man named Jim James, had commenced their first set two hours earlier with a rambling, funny, eight-minute monologue that concluded with them going Donner Party on bassist Two-Tone Tommy and then resurrecting him in time for a blistering rendition of "One Big Holiday."
The theme had been cooked up on the tour bus, says James — My Morning Jacket's singer, songwriter, and founder — when the band decided to think of the "craziest, stupidest thing [they] could do for New Year's Eve."
"It was the kind of thing that you would think could only have been conceived by people that were very, very high. Except we weren't," keyboardist Bo Koster echoes.
The same couldn't be said for the concertgoers, many of whom during the revelatory first set had taken full advantage of San Francisco's liberal drug policy. But to an audience of die-hards, it seemed nothing more than the run-of-the-mill greatness they'd come to expect from the band's femur-fracturing live show: James leaping onto subwoofers, all whirling wrath, flying hair, and flying V's; Hallahan smashing his drum kit with bruising, cavemanlike snare hits; Koster's psychedelic keys, which sound like Pink Floyd writing the score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind; and Two-Tone Tommy's bass lines, which would make Donald "Duck" Dunn proud.
When the band is on, My Morning Jacket has the power to stop time. This might sound a bit far-fetched, but I assure you it's true. On more than one occasion of seeing them perform live, I've had complete strangers turn to me and ask, "Are they always this good?" Sometimes they're even better, I usually answer.
Listen to the bootleg of the marathon three-and-a-half-hour set at the 2006 Bonnaroo — featuring Rolling Stones, Flying Burrito Brothers, and Misfits covers, plus a thunderous 10-minute version of The Who's miniopera, "A Quick One (While He's Away)," which somehow captured the fury of Townshend and company without Xeroxing it — and you're a convert. Or maybe you'd prefer the soundboard from My Morning Jacket's two-night prom, held in March at the 40 Watt in Athens, complete with vintage pink and aqua tuxes ostensibly swiped from the closets of Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne. (For the record, MMJ does a fantastic cover of "Oh, What a Night.")
I suppose the cosmic shock of it all stems partially from the notion that it doesn't seem possible for a band such as My Morning Jacket to exist anymore. In this fractionalized, indie-skewing world of 2008, rock stars are considered dinosaurs. Sure we've had some great music in this decade, but other than maybe Jack White, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone remotely qualified for the appellation rock star. Although The Arcade Fire is arguably the most ballyhooed live act of recent vintage, Win Butler, as a frontman, seems more pallbearer than Paul Stanley, with a pasty, joyless scowl permanently scarring his face. Even James himself considers the idea of a "rock star" to be a slightly antiquated conceit.
"When vinyl was king and there wasn't any MTV or YouTube, you had to imagine so much more," James says. "You'd stare at a band's pictures in magazines and listen to their record. And when they came to town, it was an event. Nirvana and Pearl Jam might have been the last of a breed."
So maybe Jim James is a new kind of rock star, one blessed with a postmodern self-awareness and the sense of humor you'd expect from a guy who lists Rushmore as his favorite film, Dave Eggers and Haruki Murakami as his favorite contemporary writers, and The Muppet Show as one of his earliest musical inspirations. It's this amiable goofiness that shines live, in the form of nonsensical asides about "Careless Whisper" really being about bananas. It's the band's weird wardrobe. It's the nearly childlike thrill James seems to get from performing.
Of course, when My Morning Jacket first came to national prominence in 2003 with its major-label debut, It Still Moves, every rock hack rushed to pigeonhole the group alongside the Kings of Leon in some never-materialized Southern rock revival. The comparison reportedly irked the Kentucky-based band, and for good reason, because it amounted to little more than flying hair + flying V's + improvisation/Louisville = neo–Allman Brothers/Lynyrd Skynyrd. It didn't help matters when the band did a cover of "Freebird" in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown.
But when you listen to their first three records, the name that most readily comes to mind is Skynyrd's erstwhile rival Neil Young, whose plaintive moonlight warble provides the foundation for much of James's early work. Indeed, one of the Louisville native's most indelible memories is watching the singer on Saturday Night Live.