My Morning Jacket
Uptown Amphitheatre – July 29, 2015
Review by DJ Tanner
My Morning Jacket is, first and foremost, a live band. Their music is meant for and is most impactful in a live setting. They have an incredibly diverse catalog, with songs ranging from haunting to joyous, from intimate to powerful, from country to rock to R&B to psychedelic, and all immensely well-suited for a concert environment. I was with someone seeing them for the first time last night. They leaned over halfway through the first song and said “it actually sounds better live.” This was particularly true on this night. Almost two decades into their career, you might expect a bit of complacency, but you’d be dead wrong. We witnessed a band at a peak of their career, renewed and rejuvenated by the release of an incredible new album, with a level of confidence that manifested itself in one of the best shows I’ve ever seen them play.
This was the third time MMJ has played the Uptown Amphitheater and first time in three years. As such, energy and anticipation was high, despite the fact that it was another midweek show for the Queen City. (Note to any bands or booking agents reading this: we are starved for weekend shows – hook it up.)
We walked in towards the tail end of Lucius’ set. I didn’t catch enough of it to give a review, but the crowd was into it. Bonus points for the snazzy getups. Matching band outfits is never not awesome, especially when they looked like that.
Opening the show up with “Wordless Chorus” is about all you can ask for. It’s got the perfect head-nodding gait, a gut-rattling low-end and brilliant collage of hoots for a chorus that immediately got crowd engaged. That and the Touch Me Part 1 that followed both had Jim in full rock star mode stalking the stage sans-guitar and hamming it up with the crowd. He is an awesomely weird dude, and his on stage persona fits their style of music perfectly. Just the right amount of absurdity to keep the vibe at their shows so loose and fun.
I read that, after sitting in with them, one of their guests at the One Big Holiday shows in Mexico (Bright Eyes I think) equated playing with My Morning Jacket to riding on a runaway freight train – you just hang on and hope for the best. That is the perfect description. Multiple times last night it felt like everything was about to spiral out of control, but they’d always rein in right back in. A lot of that credit has to go to their drummer, Patrick Hallahan, who is an unbelievable swirling mass of arms and hair. This was especially true during “Evil Urges” and “Lay Low” whose tempo changes and soaring climaxes were navigated perfectly.
The guitar outro section of “Lay Low” is an incredible piece of music, and they absolutely nailed it. When the guitars and keys all sync up at the end of the solo it is just a perfect moment. My earliest musical memories are of my dad playing Allman Brothers albums on our home stereo. So those intricate, interlocking and harmonic dual lead guitar solos hold a special place for me. And My Morning Jacket does that as well as anyone out there right now. Also, the solo at the end of “Evil Urges” is so head-bangingly good it feels like you need long hair to fully appreciate its awesomeness.
A quick note on the overall song selection at the show. With 7 solid studio albums in the books, MMJ has an impossibly deep catalog of songs to choose from, and they do an excellent job of selecting which tunes make it into the regular rotation. I’m not sure there was a single song choice I balked at last night. Really good overall flow that touched on every album and every style in their deep arsenal. The “War Begun” choice warrants particular attention – a track from their first album, Tennessee Fire, that has evolved from an ambling acoustic recording to a complete burner in their live show. Jim’s solo at the end of this song might have been his finest and most inspired work of the night.
MMJ has an uncanny ability to seamlessly skate through multiple genres without losing their trademark sound. Much of that can be attributed to strength and diversity of Jim James’ voice, which might be the most impressive instrument in a band loaded with talent. This was most evident on “I Will Sing You Songs”, which is, in my opinion, the best showcase of Jim’s vocals of any song in their catalog. It is delicate and powerful with plenty of space for him to show off his absurd range. Just a beautiful song that was played and sang impeccably well.
Credit to Carl Broemel for some incredible playing throughout the night. His solo on “Circuital” was particularly strong. If you haven’t already, check out MMJ’s VH1 Storytellers episode. Jim tells a great story about that solo on it. Also have to give props to Bo Koster on keys. His fills and effects are huge part of what makes MMJ such a diverse band. Again, just exactly the right amount of weirdness to keep things interesting.
Their latest album, The Waterfall, has been nearly universally applauded, and is, in my opinion, their best offering since Z. My only complaint is that the mix feels a bit muted and takes some of the punch out of certain songs. I was looking forward to see if they had an extra gear in a live setting. The answer was a resounding yes, especially on “Spring (Among the Living)”, which was smartly placed towards the back of the set. That song has immediately entered the pantheon of live standouts. Credit should also be given to MMJ’s lighting director, Marc Janowitz. He nailed everything last night, and you could tell he was especially enjoying playing around with the new tracks. The floor-level strobe lights stood out to me for some reason – very cool effect.
A big nod to Lucius for two strong appearances on stage during MMJ’s set. The first was background vocals for “Wonderful” and “Like a River”. Both gorgeous takes on gorgeous songs with an added level of depth and power from the Lucius girls. And the second appearance had the three drummers set up in front of the riser for the first three songs of the encore, “At Dawn”, “Victory Dance” and “Highly Suspicious”. This worked especially well on “Victory Dance”, which is already an absurdly powerful track to begin with. The extra punch of the expanded rhythm section put it over the top – somewhat reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s version of Tusk with the USC marching band. It’s also worth mentioning that hearing several thousand people sing “peanut butter pudding surprise” in unison during “Highly Suspicious” will never ever get old. What a fucking awesomely strange band.
But the absolute standout in a night full of highlights was the 20+ minute “Dondante”. Before the show, someone in our crew had mentioned it was long overdue for an appearance on this tour. So when they dropped into the beat, there might have been a few flying chest bumps in the pit. While “One Big Holiday” is unequivocally their signature song, “Dondante” best embodies what I love most about this band – the contrast of soft and loud, tension and release, haunting, patient builds and soaring climaxes, all held together by unrivaled and immaculate vocal range and power. And this was the best version I’ve heard of the song to date. Jim noodled around with his solo forever, slowly building the anticipation to a fever pitch, and when it finally dropped into the chorus the place exploded.
Moments like that are why I spend an inordinate amount of time seeing live music – the hope that you will witness and be part of a genuine moment. There is nothing like the collective enthusiasm of thousands of people simultaneously and spontaneously losing their mind. Very few bands can pull that off. I’m just glad one of them was in town on this night. Much appreciation to Lucius, MMJ and their crews for putting on a hell of a show. Hurry back.
My Morning Jacket
Hear “Big Decisions” the first single off ‘The Waterfall’: smarturl.it/BDVis
Download ‘The Waterfall’ now smarturl.it/TheWaterfall
Physical available for pre order at smarturl.it/MMJstore