CONCERT REVIEW | My Morning Jacket brings genre into a groovy 21st century
By Mark Guarino
Jim James has a name that makes him sound like an outlaw, except then he sings and out comes the sound of a sensitive boy, high and yearning; when his voice bellows and whoops, it is primal and full of joy.
James is the unlikely star of My Morning Jacket, which played the first of two nights at the Chicago Theatre Saturday. He and his band are among a select few in recent years — Drive-By Truckers and King of Leon, in particular — that are using their birthright as Southerners to remake what bands of an earlier generation fermented as music made below the Mason-Dixon line: a front line of multiple guitars, fast, emotive soloing and storytelling tied to excess and pride.
My Morning Jacket, from Louisville, Ky., continues the tradition, except more than any of their peers, their music is more cosmic, gentler and obsessed with mystical connections with nature. Anyone would be hard-pressed to find grander songs in the Southern rock canon than “Wordless Chorus” or “One Big Holiday” but at the same time, the band played atmospheric country ballads (“Sec Walkin”) and impressive swings into New Wave dance (“Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2”) and reggae-rock (“Phone Went West”).
The band was in town to make up for two canceled dates last fall, the result of a stage fall James took that landed him in the hospital.
His injury wasn’t evident, although unlike previous stops in Chicago, at smaller venues ranging from Metro to the Vic, his stage movement was more limited. James, who spent the last third of Saturday’s show wearing a black cape, was fashioned like an “Astral Weeks”-era Van Morrison. (Shorn of his trademark beard, his clean-shaven face helped too.) Despite the shamanistic flourishes, he was also as down-home as pecan pie: Giving the thumbs-up frequently signaled that things were moving along quite well.
Since the band’s first album debut in 2000, it played arena rock even though it was just playing small clubs. Now that it can headline the large halls that can accommodate its massive sound, the band has moved on to more ambient sounds. “Evil Urges” (ATO), its latest album and the source for about half of the 24-song set, pulses with electronic programming plus the trembling string sections of old soul records.
Some of those songs, like the robotic crunch of “Highly Suspicious” became more self-conscious and the band seemed less assured and more constrained. There was more comfort with songs that had a more traditional bent, like the booming “I’m Amazed” or “Where To Begin,” a somber waltz.
That isn’t to say the band does anything by convention. By this point, My Morning Jacket is a cohesive five-member unit that filters even the most ragged traditions through their unique brand of cosmic fire. Like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, there were frequent huddles near the bass drum for terse jamming. But even those moments were carefully restrained to bolster the music’s eventual release.
The band’s confidence playing with nuance as well as in broad strokes is what kept this show, among many others, an edge-of-the-seat thriller. They may acknowledge Southern rock decadence, but only imbibe in measured sips.
Mark Guarino is a Chicago rock journalist (mark-guarino.com).