Photo by Christopher Gair
Even after seeing his main squeeze My Morning Jacket sixteen times over the last eight years, Jim James still managed to impress, surprise and provide an existential thrill on Saturday night in Hollywood. While the three-night LA run MMJ played back in September at The Wiltern was utterly spectacular, The Fonda Theatre was a preferable locale for this show + tour and the perfect kind of room for James to thrive in. With an array of bizarre artwork lining the walls, a nice sized GA floor, better acoustics and close proximity to the epicenter of one of America strangest universes (Hollyweird), the historic 1920′s venue fit well thematically with the new songs’ ambitious and gaudy concepts.
The intrigue surrounding the KY-bred rock star’s new album, tour and backing band was apparently quite high in the LA area – this show sold out very quickly and I personally spotted Rick Rubin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, MMJ keys man Bo Koster and Monsters of Folk bandmate Conor Oberst popped out during the show. Also, there was a rumored Rivers Cuomo sighting.
As the curtains were raised just after 10 pm, the show began with a somewhat linear feel and James began running through his solo debut LP Regions of Light and Sound of God in order song-by-song, bringing the new album’s lyrical depth to the forefront. As it does on the album, the night began with “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)” and further showcased a new Moonwalk / Line Dance sashay to James’ ever-evolving flotilla of dance maneuvers. The song’s signature austere piano roll provided the underlay as James delivered in his eerie, tremulous delivery: “I use my state of the art technology/ Now don’t you forget it: it ain’t usin’ me.”
The reflective and entirely unique “Know ‘Til Now” came next and was easily one of the bigger highlights of the album set, replete with multi-layered interludes and emphatic saxophone solos. The polished band helped James float seemlessly between tracks, giving no time for the oddly (for LA) locked-in and energized crowd to lose steam.
The album’s next-to-last track “All Is Forgiven” was an epic improvisational rock sprawler every bit as good as most versions of such top-notch MMJ standouts like “Dondante” and “Lay Low”. The track started out with a subtle nod to Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and meandered in countless directions before a sizzling jam session in the same key as the aforementioned “Dondante,” but of an entirely different dimension sonically given the different instrumentation of his talented band.
After a very brief encore break, the shaggy and dapper James reappeared alone on stage and, as he’s been known to do with MMJ, sang and performed the always mellifluous “Bermuda Highway” and the singalong-of-the-night “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”. Following this pleasant portion of the show, the band returned to the stage for a run of tunes James has recorded with his other side projects (when is he not recording/producing/touring/collaborating?) like Monsters of Folk and The New Multitudes.
Notably, while playing the standout MoF jam “Dear God,” Conor Oberst (Monsters of Folk / Bright Eyes) popped up on stage shrouded in a black cape and looking like he was a stagehand assisting James with a quick wardrobe change. Once he revealed his face by the mic at the front of the stage, Oberst was met with a big reception and sang his verse from the original track. While James wrapped the rest of the tune Oberst stood, arms outstretched on the drum riser with his back turned to the audience. Just as he entered, as soon as the song was complete, Conor vanished from the stage in a blink.
Alas, to close the show, it was a gnashing, psych-folk rave-up rendering of “Changing World” (from New Multitudes’ Woody Guthrie tribute album) number that capped off the night and added one final genre checkoff to a show that ran quite a stylistic gamut.
Always the genuine and appreciative showman, James grabbed the familiar decorative bear from its amp perch and presented it to the crowd as a brief spiritual invocation before waving goodbye.
Much like his new album and canon with MMJ, the show itself was an odyssey through the creative, philosophic mind of James Olliges Jr. and provided an even closer look at his many hats, talents and inspirations (…and saxophone skills). While neither James nor us discovered the meaning of life on Saturday night, the attempt was a worthy and joyous endeavor and definitely one worth repeating if given the chance.
State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)
Know Til Now
A New Life
Of the Mother Again
All Is Forgiven
God’s Love to Deliver
Wonderful (The Way I Feel)
Dear God (with Conor Oberst)
His Master’s Voice
The Right Place
Losin Yo Head