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.
"I was in eighth grade and I'd never heard of Neil Young before," James says. "My mom and I were watching SNL, and I really loved it. The next day, my mom bought Harvest, thinking it was Harvest Moon, and I had my mind ripped to pieces."
James had been in bands before, but Young's performance, along with the then-popularity of grunge, galvanized James's desire to make music, even if the Louisville scene wasn't exactly what he had imagined. "We grew up in a time when the hardcore and posthardcore scenes were really huge, so we rebelled against that because we thought they were stuck-up and isolating," he says. "We never felt accepted. We had to create our own scene."
School wasn't James's thing either: "I always loved the concept of school, but nothing really spoke to me. I never really wanted to learn to read music, so that ruled out taking music classes."
Ultimately he landed at the University of Kentucky, where he studied art with the thought of one day becoming an art teacher or an art therapist. When the tiny indie Darla Records took interest in what eventually became The Tennessee Fire, James left Lexington after only a year and a half. The sprawling psych-folk of At Dawn and the rocking It Still Moves followed, but as the band's popularity peaked, two members abruptly quit: keyboardist Danny Cash and James's cousin, cofounding member Johnny Quaid, who owned the farm/silo in Shelbyville where the band had recorded its first three records. With yet another tour scheduled in less than two months, James himself nearly packed it in.
"We were so exhausted from touring, and we briefly thought about going as a three-piece, and if that didn't work, to just say fuck it," James says. "I thought it would be lame to bring in new members."
Despite James's initial fears, the eventual addition of Koster and guitarist/saxophonist/vocalist Carl Broemel — the first two to audition — worked out perfectly, even down to their physical resemblance to Cash and Quaid. The new lineup also augured well for the recorded material, with the band's next album, Z, marking a stunning leap forward. My Morning Jacket abandoned the heavy reverb and grain-silo recording technique of earlier albums in favor of an outside producer and a studio nestled in the Catskills.
Evil Urges, the group's fifth LP, released this past June, was one of this year's most anticipated, and it doesn't disappoint, for the band seems to find a common ground between the hazy hayseed vibe of the first two records and the proggy stoner-rock of Z. Joe Chiccarelli, the Grammy-nominated producer brought in to work on Evil Urges, ranks MMJ among the finest acts he's worked with, a list that includes, among others, Frank Zappa, Elton John, Beck, the Shins, and the White Stripes.
"Jim is one of the best songwriters in music. His lyrics are intelligent and thoughtful, and like all great rock and roll groups, the band's whole is greater than the sum of its parts," Chiccarelli says. "Everyone's strengths and weaknesses add up to something magical. When they click, they make their own noise, and as a producer, that's what you live for. I'd put them in a league with Wilco or Radiohead."
Evil Urges also finds the band experimenting with funk and soul in ways that had only been hinted at earlier with "Cobra" and a widely circulated and gorgeous cover of Erykah Badu's "Tyrone." The new direction stems from James's fascination with the idea of music at its peripheries and the constant search for that indefinable blur of sound when the concept of "genre" becomes meaningless.
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"When I was writing the album, I was listening to a lot of gospel and Seventies soul," says James, who recently relocated to New York City from his longtime Louisville home. "Curtis Mayfield. Marvin Gaye. Sam Cooke. The Hot Buttered Soul album and their roots back through the church, to the point when soul, funk, and religious music became indistinguishable from one another."
The album's title, Evil Urges, reflects James's own fascination with organized religion and morality, and his personal struggles to find faith.
"It's funny thinking of human beings and their urges, and how their urges can be unrealistic fantasies at times. The whole notion of morality has been skewed by organized religion. People end up doing all kinds of crazy things and are willing to engage in all sorts of arguments about faith," James says. "I think about religion a lot, from listening to gospel music, to attending church trying to find some sort of faith for myself. I haven't been able to find it yet. I've tried hard, but something's just not hitting me."
Maybe he should go to a My Morning Jacket concert.