It's hard to be objective about My Morning Jacket. When this Kentucky band performs live, Jim James seems to be singing to each individual in his audience, whether or not he's taking the chance to stand right in front of the spectators in front. And because the MMJ front-man is one of those select few vocalists who always seems to be singing as hard as he can---softly or in a reverb-drenched wail--his elusive/allusive lyrics resonate with meaning.
Not any more so than the rest of the band though. Can a drummer play harder than Patrick Hallahan? Bassist Tommy Two-Tone might fear standing right in front of the riser for fear of the bass drum coming loose at some point and carrying him into the audience, except that the bone-rattling deep tones he pulls from his own instruments no doubt envelope him in some kind of protective force field.
James and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, sax, pedal steel) Carl Broemel formed a guitar army all by themselves, repeatedly, during the course of My Morning Jacket's show at Champlain Valley Expo in Essex Junction August 20th, not just on the abstract final third of their two hour set. The two delight in what and how many sounds they can wring from the strings and amps at their disposal. And when the pair turn toward each other, then to Two-tone, then to the drummer, it's as if the foursome are reaching for that collective epiphany that convinced them they could be a truly exceptional band. (Keyboardist Bo Koster isn't left out, it's just that he's the unsung hero of MMJ, standing seemingly aloof but off to the side, fully absorbed in the array of sounds and samples he draws from his own bank of devices.)
My Morning Jacket under an almost full moon sounds evocative and it was this clear crisp night in Vermont. This is a group that aims for transcendence and to an extent they fulfilled their goal, rising above the familiarity of material like "Gideon" and "Off the Record." The band also took a novel approach to the set list by including instrumental segments from previous records--the ends of "Run Thru" and "Lay Low"--as jumping off points for the previously mentioned abstractions. The set then had a discernible shape when another clutch of familiar material, rockers all, climaxed the show in the form of "Wordless Chorus," "Steam Engine" and others.
MMJ is reportedly working on a new studio recording for 2011 and to be sure they need some new material: they've mined It Still Moves, Z and, to a considerably lesser extent, Evil Urges, as deeply as they can. But Jim James may never tire of performing "One Big Holiday," precisely because he takes such glee in being on stage to begin with. Take his description of the "cool air kissing his cheek" (or words to that effect) for what it's worth, there's still no denying he delights in the physical sensation of performing, which is why his antics, ranging from classic rock band posing to a comical Dracula in a cape, are enjoyable on their own terms. He only takes himself so seriously and the rest of the band follows suit, no doubt the reason The Jacket pulls from so many varied demographics for its fan base and, more importantly, why they elicit such maniacal response from crowds like the one at the Chaplain Valley this late summer night.
"All signs point to Essex Junction" Jim James solemnly intoned a handful of times during the evening and given his eccentric magnetism, by the time My Morning Jacket left the stage, it was probably true.
Visit MMJ