One Big New Year’s Party With My Morning Jacket
by Justin Miller, Photos by Mountain Trout Photography
My Morning Jacket delivered a strong 3 night run at the 1st Bank Center located in Broomfield, Colorado – just a short drive North between Denver and Boulder. The run was highly anticipated by MMJ’s rabid fanbase for a variety of reasons, the first of which being that the band hasn’t played together since ending their 2017 Summer tour on August 12, 2017 with a weather-curtailed set at MASS MoCa in Western Massachusetts. The MMJ Summer tour was considered by many to be a somewhat formulaic final effort to push MMJ’s May 2015 album release The Waterfall, with most of the tour centered in Northeast amphitheaters with early curfews that left many fans hungry for typical longer setlists and deeper cuts.
The four month break was a very busy time for the band, with keyboardist Bo Koster notably being picked up to play with Roger Waters. Front man Jim James was seemingly everywhere with notable appearances with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, an acoustic solo set at Lockn Festival, playing Bob Weir at his Sweetwater Hall set, playing with Phil Lesh and Friends at Sound Summit Festival in Mill Valley, California, along with a handful of charity events leading up to his recent release of A Tribute to 2 covers album. Guitar Wizard Carl Broemel also delivered a handful of dates with Steelism and kept busy supporting the bustling Nashville music scene. James also joined MMJ bass guru Tom Blankenship and lifelong friend and drummer Patrick Hallahan at a fitting hometown tribute to Tom Petty at Louisville’s Headliners on Thanksgiving Eve. Creating some tension was a recent announcement by the band that they would not be booking any US dates in 2018 – which brought with it the fanbase realization that there were only 6 MMJ shows remaining before the band would be taking a hard-earned but loosely defined break.
There were also some behind-the-scenes concerns and industry tension as the 3-night run did not sell out immediately. 1st Bank Center, with its 6,500 seat capacity, is a well-tailored but aggressive booking for MMJ to headline – especially for a 3 night run. Some of the initially slow ticket sales could be attributed to the band’s booking and sales of its 4th installment of One Big Holiday event produced by Cloud9 Adventures and being held March 2-6, 2018 in the Dominican Republic. However, and while the New Years’ run was officially announced in August, it has been well in the works since April with AEG Rocky Mountains (more on this later), some added pressure was placed by a somewhat saturated Denver market with Umphrey’s Mcgee also playing 3 nights over the holiday weekend and lots of other musical entertainment options being available in the greater Denver area. Despite all of this, the shows would build up to a packed house on New Year’s Eve with rabid fans not only coming in every night locally, but also from over 42 states and 3 foreign countries (the writer actually conducted a somewhat scientific poll – probably underestimating here).
Diehard MMJ fans relish multi-night stands, as these are truly the best way to see and hear the essence of this remarkable band. The run and its potential for the band to dig deep into its catalogue and lay down not only rare classics, but also never before played covers brought their fans out from all corners with hopes to match or exceed the no-repeat 3 night run they played leading up to the New Year in December 2012 at Port Chester’s Capitol Theatre. That epic run was delivered by MMJ superfan and producer Peter Shapiro at his then just opened venue just outside of New York City. It was a risky move to commit to a relatively small touring band within 3 months of opening the Cap with its 1,800 seats. This calculated risk was very much rewarded by what is considered by many as the best 3 night run MMJ has ever delivered. Don Strasburg and his AEG team had a huge challenge ahead of them, but given the timing of band’s announced hiatus and an expanded fanbase since 2012, this was another MMJ fan calculated risk that was likewise rewarded with a run that none in attendance will ever forget.
With this scene set, the evening of December 29, 2017 in Broomfield was electric with buzz and anticipation for MMJ fans making the trek from near and far. Upon entering the arena, many were struck by the impressive new light rigs mounted over the stage and crowd – including by my count 22 different disco balls – or mirror balls, as a friend has suggested they are properly called. Either way, the stage and overhead rigs were incredible and promised of great things to come.
The evening kicked off with a tight set from The Revolution and their always explosive hat tip to Prince. The crowd responded to their energy, but some factors left the opening slot feeling a little empty – despite lots of dancing and general excitement, the crowd was still feeling its way around the open GA format of 1st Bank’s seating and this left many not paying 100% attention to the Revolution. However, MMJ fans did largely pay due respect and enjoyed a finely executed set of Prince songs.
Then My Morning Jacket walked out like they owned the place. With the floor of the 1st Bank at capacity and the stands about half filled, MMJ got right to work setting the tone with their classic At Dawn. Jacket enthusiasts were rewarded with a transition into Lowdown and an extended set that followed, which included truly deep cuts Hopefully and Knot Comes Loose. Additional highlights of their main set were Carl Broemel’s original Carried Away and their perfectly executed medley of War Begun into I Will Sing You Songs.
The evening’s centerpiece was a 22 minute rendering of MMJ mainstay and haunting ballad Dondante. The entire arena was transfixed by the song and the crowd was beginning to see just how truly beautiful the enhanced lighting rigs were. While not confirmed, this song ran so long that it led to cutting their hard rocking Run Thru from closing the main set (but thankfully this head banger made its way back into the run on night 2).
While most of the night’s songs included MMJ mainstays, the band did include notable covers Tonight I’ll be Staying Here with You (Bob Dylan) and Rebel Rebel (David Bowie), the latter of which made its debut at Lockn 2016. The band took a short break and returned with a brief but energetic 3-song encore that concluded with their classic Anytime leaving the crowd satisfied and carrying considerable energy into night 2.
Night 2 of the stand brought opening act tUnE-yArDs fronted by Merrill Garbus on loop pedals, ukulele, vocals, and lo-fi percussion and joined by bass player Nate Brenner. While Merrill’s looping prowess is probably unmatched, the crowd was mostly scratching their heads – we had now figured out how to navigate around and get settled with the 1st Bank open seating logistics and were more attentively focused than during the Revolution. It was agreed that tUnE-yArDs undoubtedly provide fun dance exploration, but they seemed better fit for a late night dance set in a small room as opposed to being tasked with warming up 4,000ish MMJ fans. This sentiment seemed to be acknowledged by Jim James himself while enthusiastically thanking the opener for their “truly F’ed up sounds”.
MMJ’s second night was also fan tailored and many quickly realized what I’ve been saying for years – the 2nd night of any 3 night run is the sweet spot. We were also beginning to see some of the now-revered One Big Holiday Festival set list formula beginning to surface, a quieter first night for the old school fans – with both crowd and band shaking off initial jitters. Then settling into the magic of MMJ with confident and truly spotless delivery on night 2, with the final night reserved for the band’s enjoyment and lots of never played covers. The crowd thus far had been very well behaved and reserved, and the staff at the 1st Bank appeared to enjoy the relatively subdued antics of the MMJ fan base. Being in Colorado, one would assume that the out of towners would over-indulge in the cannabis state and push the boundaries of indoor smoking restrictions – to the contrary, the audience had politely adapted to local vaping etiquette. A friend suggested that they should just rename the place 1st Vape Center. It was fun to watch the GA floor glowing each night with pen lights – but thankfully the air was largely clean and clear for those not indulging.
The band opened the night with the title track from their 2011 release Circuital, which was a perfect way to set the tempo and tone for the evening. MMJ classics “Off the Record,” “The Dark” and “The Way That He Sings” kept the energy high as they welcomed a tight 3-piece horn section onto stage (Oscar Utterstrom, Vincent Ciesielski and Tyler Summers) for their song First Light augmenting Carl Broemel’s saxophone playing on this raucous tune. It was quickly evident that this cadre of hired gun horns wasn’t quickly slapped together for the run, but rather had spent some real time learning the MMJ catalogue and practicing with the band. The end result was truly spectacular and the backing group would join the band 4 more times over the course of the night on MMJs “Easy Morning Rebel” and “Run Thru” as well as notable encore covers like “Mercy Mercy Me” (Marvin Gaye) and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which was last played in February with photographer and musician Danny Clinch accompanying on harmonica at One Big Holiday 3 in Mexico.
Among other notable highlights during night 2 was the band’s “Picture of You,” which has traditionally been a subdued ballad, but of recent has been transformed into a rocking head banger and crowd favorite. The crowd was also rewarded with an exacting cover of Simon and Garfunkle’s “America” and Prince’s “Purple Rain,” during which Carl Broemel absolutely nailed Prince’s mind bending guitar solo and quite frankly overshadowed the Revolution’s delivery of the same song the night before. Perhaps the biggest gem of the night was the band’s unveiling of “The First Time” for literally the first time at the end of their classic “Steam Engine” (replete with confetti cannons blowing into the crowd that actually blew a fuse and the front of house during that song’s crescendo lyric “take your money and your drugs……”). “The First Time” was written and delivered as part of the HBO series “Roadies” and the live debut did not disappoint.
Night 3. New Year’s Eve.
Coming off two nights of building intensity up to the final US date for at least a year and the excitement was palpable. Many fans dressed up for the event and the crowd walking into the venue resembled a casting call for MMJ’s Okonokos concert film sharing the same name as their 2006 breakout live album filmed and taped over 2 nights in 2005 at San Francisco’s Fillmore. The only thing missing was an Alpaca, although I understand efforts were made to find a few.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe opened the night to a much more crowded room and blew the place up with a horn driven dance party. Karl’s crew of talented and storied musicians were stepping in for the late, great Charles Bradley, who passed away following the initial booking. Karl’s set was explosive, tight, and completely appropriate. Charles Bradley would be proud. With Karl’s set coming to a close and the room nearing full capacity, it was agreed that the final night brought the best opening act of the run.
My Morning Jacket took the stage for a night that no one could have expected or predicted. Beginning a night filled with horns, MMJ opened the show with the song and confidence statement “Victory Dance.” The song was accompanied with not only expert horns, but also a barrage of pyrotechnics and explosive arrays of confetti throughout that awed the crowd along with an amazing light show. MMJ’s longtime front of house guru Ryan Pickett needs to be thanked profusely for stepping up Jacket’s production value so incredibly for this event – the shows exceeded expectations and Jacket’s quiet but highly valued tech genius made great shows into an unbelievable sight to behold. The sound at 1st Bank has been notoriously inconsistent over the past couple of years, but Ryan somehow balanced that room to perfection. The sound and mix was crystal clear from all vantage points – which is a near impossible task with varying crowd sizes over three nights. Well done sir.
The opener was followed by a highly unusually early set placement of MMJ’s “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 1,” which frees frontman James’ hands from instruments and allows him to croon serenely while prowling the front of stage to welcome fans on the rail who had been waiting outside in 20 degree weather since before 10am that morning. This transitioned into a flawless delivery of “Evil Urges” and “Compound Fracture,” which many had dreaded due to high rotation over the Summer tour, but the early placement and high energy brought even the most jaded fan to their feet yelling for more. And more they got.
The first few notes of the 5th song of the night had everyone looking next to them quickly with a quizzical look on their face – what IS that? And then Bo Koster’s synthesizers gave way to one of the most recognizable sounds for any Bruce Springsteen fan – his 1984 hit “Dancing in the Dark” pumped from the stage and the entire room erupted with this first time cover from Jacket that was dripping with horns. The only thing missing was Courtney Cox dancing awkwardly in front of Jim.
The set kept up the tempo with Jim James’ “A New Life” and two Waterfall tracks “Spring (Among the Living)” and “Tropics,” followed by a horn supported “Holding Onto Black Metal.” In true Jacket fashion, the band pivoted mid-set with a huge surprise bust out of their released, but never played “Magic Bullet,” which was delivered in a brooding and jammy beat that featured some superb and explorative bass playing by Tom Blankenship. This song was a huge treat for fans and was delivered at just the right part of the night’s first set.
Then all hell seemed to break loose with a Jacket dance party the likes of which haven’t been seen. They ripped into their rollicking tune “Highly Suspicious” with James’ falsetto crystal clear and flawless. The band rolled into their “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 2,” which delivered the only Omnichord musings of the run from James. This bass driven dance maker rolled right into their likewise bass heavy masterpiece “Cobra” that threw the room into an appropriately wild frenzy. As the song neared its denouement, those standing above the stage “Carl side” could see the horn section returning as Patrick Hallahan and Tom Blankenship changed the beat over to the unmistakable groove of the Rolling Stones’ 1978 disco jam “Miss You.” Yes, another first time bust out that left many awestruck while at the same time finding it impossible not to dance. Truly an incredible string of songs.
MMJ then unleashed their classic “Gideon: with continued horn support that raised the bar on a song that originally hooked many MMJ fans (with pyrotechnic flair to boot). James added a song to the written set list by delivering a beautiful and heartfelt acoustic rendition of his “Bermuda Highway,” which was met with crowd thanks and delight. The band ended a truly one-of-a-kind set with their reggae-infused hit “Phone Went West,” which has seen an incredible evolution of arrangement and depth in the past 5 years – it seemed as if they completely deconstructed the song and built it into yet another version that seems impossible to top, yet they continue to show their fans the ability to develop and grow songs within their impressive catalogue.
It was around 11:30 at this point and the band existed the stage to an awestruck crowd that collectively realized that the room was absolutely full and everyone was exactly where they wanted to be at that moment – truly a perfect delivery and experience. A sheet dropped in front of the stage that served as a projector screen from front of house that maintained an ever-changing digital clock that showed a countdown that kept changing – it was somewhat disorienting as everyone was looking at their phones and watches saying “that can’t be right?” In retrospect, the effect was disarming on purpose and kept the crowd talking to each other instead of worrying so much about the mad dash to the bathroom or “defending” their spot on the floor – it was quite genius in fact. At about 11:50, the clock gave way to a projected film collage of clips and scenes highlighted with a quietly delivered yet poignant speech from Martin Luther King, Jr. on March 31, 1968 – just a few days prior to his assassination – that centered on remaining awake through a great revolution. The presentation was interwoven with messages of loving one’s neighbor and treating all people with love and care. I thought it was a perfect message to deliver as we were poised to open 2018 after a long, restless and politically tiresome 2017.
Shadows of the band could be seen moving behind the screen around 11:55 and the room was giddy with anticipation. It was clear that there were more than 5 people on stage – in fact, there appeared to be many more than that. Backlit projection showed Patrick Hallahan making a heart gesture with his hands through the screen as the rest of the band and their mysterious guests remained frozen. Jim James welcomed and thanked the crowd before counting down the final seconds of the year. The turn of the year had the crowd hugging and kissing as MMJ broke into Wordless Chorus from behind the still raised sheet to start a 9 song encore that would last 45 minutes into the new year.
In the midst of “Wordless Chorus” being played behind sheet, the band utilized a fairly common “lights out” pivot in the song that was used by James to have the drape dropped to reveal the band dressed in a motley garb of outfits that seemed to be an assemblage of all of the New Year’s costumes they’ve worn over the years – Carl in a vintage white tux, Patrick in a crazy getup and red wig, Jim replete with boas, wig and silly sunglasses. Tom wore some old hightops that I’m sure have a story associated with them and Bo remained Bo in his staid black suit and signature hat. Bo is Bo and he plays for Roger Waters, so there’s really no questioning these things.
What was more interesting were the guests that joined them – behind Patrick on the drum riser stood a guy in a giant rainbow leotard and mask holding a huge sign stating “Love Always Wins” and another fellow (I presumed at the time) was decked out in a swaddling, gnome-like father time costume. As the band worked through “Wordless Chorus,” these merry pranksters danced around the band and stage while the crowd was going nuts – and at some point, the rainbow unicorn character flipped the sign to reveal the reverse side, which read “You Are Beautiful.” Quite the show, fellahs. Later I would learn that Kevin Ratterman was the rainbow clad sign holder and father time was reportedly none other than Don Strasburg himself.
The next eight songs were expertly curated by the band to create a love-themed dance party that will be extremely hard to top. The band rolled into Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” followed by a soaring version of MMJ’s guitar driven masterpiece “Dancefloors.” The dance party was taken down just a notch as James then led the band through Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now,” which also debuted at Lockn ’16 and has become a mainstay statement of love for James and the band over the past year and a half. This rolled into another debut in the form of the Beatles’ 1967 single “All You Need is Love,” which was met with awe by the crowd – the parallels in time and theme of the set break video presentation and this song were not lost on the audience and it was again clear how much time and thought were put into this run and the set list for the final show in particular.
Literally needing a breather at this point, the band was given a momentary respite as Bo Koster cued the extended opening drum tracks to MMJ’s “Lay Low,” which was deftly delivered with dazzling lights and pyro. The band then delivered their final curve ball of the run with a medley of covers that they’ve not only never played, but couldn’t possibly be predicted – Tom Blankenship started laying down a familiar funky base line that opened up into Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 funk standard “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” – Jim James was literally thanking the crowd for letting him be himself (again) – and the indulgence was obviously welcomed. This transitioned seamlessly into Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” which couldn’t have been called by even the geekiest set list watchers. At this point, the crowd had been singing along with the band for 20 minutes straight and the inevitable transition into the cymbals of MMJ’s telling closer One Big Holiday rang out. The crowd exchanged hugs and smiles as we knew the end was nigh – the band then opened up into the biggest, loudest and pyro driven version of the song I’ve ever witnessed. A very fitting end to the best 3 night run of MMJ ever conceived.
As the lights came up, the band thanked the audience profusely – including Patrick who was still trying to keep his red wig adjusted. The crowd was exhausted but very grateful and lingered to reflect on what had just gone down. With a few days’ more reflection, the following observations are offered:
The band has reached yet another peak in perfection with MVP nods going to (i) Bo Koster for emerging after his Roger Waters tour as a new driving force in the band, and (ii) Tom Blankenship stepping up his low end game with remarkable experimentation on their live debut of Magic Bullet and the many bass driven dance songs. Everyone agrees that Jim’s voice was strong and confident through the entire run as well. The overall planning and curation for the run were second to none. This was not only driven by the band and management (looking at you Eric Mayers), but also through the active participation by MMJ enthusiast Don Strasburg – without this early planning and investment by AEG, none of this would have been possible – especially the giant investment in production quality. Take a bow, please. Back in early May 2017, I had the pleasure to meet Don briefly at the Relix Music Conference at Brooklyn Bowl – rumors had been swirling about a NYE run in the Denver area so I worked up the courage to ask him point blank if they were true. Instead of answering outright, he kind of smiled at me and shared a funny anecdote – “You know, my staff keeps asking me who is leaking all the rumors of a Jacket NYE run at 1st bank….and I keep saying it’s me!” There’s a fan for you.
My Morning Jacket’s three remaining scheduled shows will be held in the Dominican Republic as part of their fourth installment of One Big Holiday. From there, we don’t know. Despite withering doom and gloom predictions from some quarters, I’m of firm belief that a one year hiatus will be just that – and perhaps the initial underlying driver is that Bo Koster will be on tour with Roger Waters for most of the year. The band in general has earned a break, but I somehow doubt they will be sitting still. I personally hope that they stay on track for OBH5 in the Dominican in early 2019 and roll out an album and tour that year. There are rumblings of a Live Album release soon as well. With everything that went down in Broomfield, I also hope that they decide to establish a New Year’s tradition and commit to a warm-up run for OBH5. Should this come to pass, I’m looking at you Mr. Shapiro – let’s see if you can dance like Don.
Happy New Year to all and looking forward to warmer weather in the Dominican in two short months.