Been a while since I’ve posted some submissions, so today’s a good day to get back on the right track. Mike Johnson has been a reader of Live Music Blog and a huge fan of My Morning Jacket for a while now — his first review was posted here — and we check in with him as he reflects on their Saturday night performance in Boston…
I’ve been able to see some amazing shows over the years (Peter Gabriel, The Cure, New Order/PiL/Sugarcubes, Radiohead, and Interpol/Secret Machines immediately come to mind), but I have often regretted not being there when other, seminal favorites of mine toured the clubs. I was heavily into Nirvana, and I still am, but unfortunately Kurt Cobain killed himself before I got to see them live. My only ‘live’ experience of Joy Division comes from a set of grainy video clips which were taped before Ian Curtis ended his own life and the remaining band members re-emerged as New Order.
Well, tonight just might have made up for that, because I got a chance to catch My Morning Jacket at the height of their creative powers. They are a jam band that stands out from all the rest for one simple reason: Jim James’ prodigious songwriting talent. They tend to migrate towards festivals like Bonnaroo that conjure up visions of Deadheads, hacky-sacks, and Phish, but after tonight’s experience, I can confidently say that the Jacket stands head and shoulders above that whole scene. During ‘Wordless Chorus’, the crowd showed their appreciation for the band’s willingness to bring something fresh and new to rock music by singing along loudly to James’ rightful boast, “we are the innovators; they are the imitators”.
I missed the opening band (you might say I gave The Slip the slip; sorry, I couldn’t help myself), but the lights came up for MMJ promptly at 8pm, saving me from a discomfort that I regularly submit myself to: standing alone in a loud, dark bar while I wait between sets. Someone in the press likened drummer Patrick Hallahan to Animal from The Muppets, and right away I saw why – Hallahan propelled the band, sticks and long, unruly hair flying, into an explosive rendering of ‘One Big Holiday’, from ‘It Still Moves’. ‘What a Wonderful Man’, from their current album, ‘Z’, followed, and what on disc is an eccentric little ditty about a creepy pied piper was transformed into an extended showcase of powerful guitar licks. Then, the band launched into what may be James’ best composition, ‘Z’’s majestic ‘Gideon’. Through these opening songs all the way to the end of the show, there was not one lull – every single moment was a musical highlight, and the guys poured everything they had into the performance.
James displayed how he has become a master at handling crowd dynamics when, at one point, right after a particularly high-voltage couple of songs, he jokingly informed the crowd about some local ‘history’. He claimed that, back in the 1770s (?!), Avalon’s building served as a hangar for the very first airplane. As we all quietly scratched our heads over that one, he started into the gentle, beautiful strains of ‘Golden’. However, the best segue of the evening consisted of James’ soaring guitar intro to ‘Run Thru’, which perfectly mirrored similar notes from the song that preceded it, ‘Z’’s haunting ‘Dondante’.
As I listened tonight, I kept thinking about Thursday’s edition of ‘Radio Lab’ on NPR, which investigated why music has such power to affect our emotions. That’s probably because, unlike the overwrought whining of the current crop of ‘emo’ bands, MMJ’s songs effortlessly evoke the joy and pain of a life fully lived. Tonight’s songs ran the gamut from the romantic yearning of ‘Just One Thing’ and ‘It Beats for You’ to ‘Lay Low’, a song about the warm satisfaction felt by a soon-to-be father at the thought of a night at home with his pregnant wife. Even cryptic songs like ‘Mahgeetah’ have a way of creeping into the subconscious – it had been playing in my head all day, in anticipation of the show, and I was really happy that they played it during the encore. Offsetting all this potential seriousness, though, is the bands’ playful sense of humor; during one of the few songs that he did not play guitar, James grabbed a stuffed-toy wooly mammoth from off of one of the speakers and proceeded to play with it like a football, tossing it way up towards the ceiling and catching it, again and again. The pretend bear that the band dresses up and puts on stage for every show probably got a kick out of that.
Near the end of the show, James mentioned how cool he thought it was that the band has been able to connect in a special way with the people of this area by appearing recently at Symphony Hall with the Boston Pops. Then, he brought out some local musicians, the ‘Boston Horns’, who had volunteered to help the band out on Dancefloors’ and ‘Easy Morning Rebel’, two songs from ‘It Still Moves’ that feature prominent horn sections. Later, the show ended with the ebullient ‘Anytime’, with its chorus of “Is this climbing up to the moon? Or is it bailing out too soon? I hope we didn’t wait too long.” Unlike Cobain and Curtis, James certainly didn’t bail out too soon; and, thankfully, this time I didn’t wait too long to miss this unique opportunity to catch a band in its prime.
— Mike Johnson, North Grafton, MA