Before heading down to Austin, I had no idea what to expect from South By Southwest. I’ve been to a few festivals, but from everything I had heard, SXSW was an entirely different animal. Bonnaroo always seemed like it had a lot of bands, but this festival boasted over 1,500 acts. All reports I read prior told me the city of Austin basically shuts down, and hoards of musicians, fans, bloggers and industry insiders rove the streets in search of the next band worthy of internet hype.

I was interested in checking out the latest blog bands, but what drew me to Texas were the sure bets — the bands I really wanted to see, and in a few cases had seen before. At the top of my list was My Morning Jacket, and I had their Thursday night show circled on my calendar weeks in advance.

Since 2003 and over the course of numerous concerts, Jim James and crew have convinced me that they are the best live band going. Their shows in Austin reinforced my opinion. The whole band is extremely tight and Jim James showed me again and again what an amazing entertainer he his.

It takes a lot of guts for established bands to play new songs that fans have never heard before. My Morning Jacket have so many live staples that, at times, it can seem hard for them to fit rarities into the setlist (let alone a few new tunes). They played a lot more than a few new tunes at their Austin Music Hall gig. They opened the set with the title track off their upcoming album, Evil Urges. And they didn’t stop there. All told they played 8 new songs, over half the new album, and ended their set with two new tunes called, “Smokin’ from Shootin,'” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream [PT 2].”

I experienced the show from the second row with Justin, Mitch and Dave from Earvolution, and we all walked out nearly shell-shocked from a powerful, beautiful night of music. But the Jim James experience was not over yet, not by a long shot.

You get to see a lot of musicians when you go to South By Southwest. Some are raucous and loud-mouthed, others hide in the shadows and let their instruments do the talking. Jim James is captivating, playful, rocks a Flying V guitar, and has the voice of an angel. In a festival filled with amateurs and up-and-comers, he was the consummate professional.


Jim James and M. Ward share the stage at St. David’s Church

I had one last chance to hear James at St. David’s Church for an intimate night of solo performances. While five musicians were on the bill, it was the duo of James and M. Ward that brought the crowds. St. David’s was the ideal location for a show like this. Small (it sat about 250) with beautiful acoustics, the intimacy basically mandated silence from the audience, something extremely hard to come by down in Austin.

M. Ward hit the small stage, and the anticipation in the chapel was palpable. If you haven’t seen him play solo accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, I suggest you do as soon as possible. The sonic tones he picks from his six strings are quite amazing, and its almost as much fun to see him work himself into a guitar instrumental piece as it is to hear it.

He played a relatively short solo set and then ushered friend and sometime collaborator James onto the stage to join him for “Chinese Translation” off Ward’s most recent album, Post War. They segued seamlessly into James’ set and brought on MMJ guitarist Carl Broemel to accompany on the pedal steel.

This is where James’ voice really shines. Relying only on the natural reverb of the church, the songs soared. Old standbys like “Bermuda Highway” were majestic, and he again filled out his set with songs off Evil Urges. “Smokin’ From Shootin'” really sounded like a standout track.

I wasn’t the only one blown away by the show. You could hear a pin drop in there. When I managed to pull my eyes away from the stage, I couldn’t help but notice audience members giving each other knowing looks, even exchanging quiet high fives. Everyone knew what we were seeing was something truly special.

My Morning Jacket
March 13, 2008
Austin Music Hall, Austin, TX
Stream it at NPR:

“Evil Urges”
“Off the Record”
“Highly Suspicious”
“What a Wonderful Man”
“I’m Amazed”
“Thank You Too”
“Sec Walkin'”
“Wordless Chorus”
“Way He Sings”
“Aluminum Park”
“One Big Holiday”
“Run Thru”
“Smokin’ From Shootin'”
“Touch Me Pt. 2”
“Steam Engine”
“Lay Low”