My Morning Jacket, Webster Hall, New York, NY- 10/18
At first glance, he looks like a young Jerry Garcia, quietly huddled on the stage left corner of Webster Hall's historic stage. Once hidden within his long, hippie-like hair, Jim James’ facial features now peak through his newly trimmed, but still fluffy, beard—-a rock star image slowly emerging from the ether. It’s been a big year for James, during which time he's seen his Kentucky-fried band, My Morning Jacket, shift lineups, headline Bonnaroo’s second stage and release its most adventurous album to date, Z. Embracing his inner diva, James puts down his guitar and speaks into his microphone, before being muted by the same amplified wall of noise that characterizes his group’s sound. Some men speak best through their music.
My Morning Jacket are about to make it big and, like so many bands before them, in a few years the group’s connection to the jam-rock community will, most likely, be all but lost. But, at this point in time, My Morning Jacket represents the exact point where jam and indie meet. Equally comfortable playing alongside Wilco and the Black Crowes, M. Ward and Dave Matthews, MMJ is a bonafide jamband; they improvise onstage, twisting their numbers around on a nightly basis. Even now, as the media anoints My Morning Jacket the next Radiohead, the quintet seems determined to stick to their roots, jumping from country-rock to indie within a song’s given structure or, more appropriately between an echo and its refrain. Which is why it was so odd that James decided to break from character and address his crowd—-and so oddly fitting that the sound which defines his voice overpowered his words.
Stylistically this evening’s performance was no different than any night on My Morning Jacket’s fall tour or, in reality, any night since the group prepped Z’s material for a live setting last spring. Mixing the organic rock-and-roll of It Still Moves with the more experimental indie sound of Z, the group filled the void between Wilco and Dave Matthews, relying on new members Bo Koster (keyboards) and Carl Broemel (guitar) to touchup the gaps in between. The long, extended intro to It Still Moves most popular cut, “One Big Holiday,” still manages to evoke the energy of a big band about to break, and its more cerebral brother, “Mahgeetah,” personified a sense of liberation, while drifting into a euphoric space. Its newest numbers, such as the futuristic surf-rock of “Off the Record,” possess a similar energy, though one less rooted in flesh and sweat and more in angsty technology—-it even sneaks in a bit of the “Hawaii 5-O Theme” for good measure. Near the end of its set, My Morning Jacket’s carefully constructed compositions crumbled into a weird, guitar-heavy bit of improve, anchored by a 80s sound-synthesizer. By any stretch of the imagination it wasn’t jam-rock as the Grateful Dead defined it, but it fit into the general framework laid out by that band. Maybe that’s why much of the crowd consisted of jam-scene alumni, a bit older and a bit better dressed, but still excited by improvisational music. Either way, My Morning Jacket has helped return jam-rock to its oft-forgotten song structure.
What was different on this night, however, was the crowd’s vibe. In the two years since they last played Webster Hall as part of the CMJ New Music Marathon’s opening night showcase, My Morning Jacket has gone from being college darlings to rock’s great hope—- an enormous pressure to place on any band, especially one who fits so perfectly into Cameron Crowe’s vision of the lost wanderer (in fact the director even tapped them for his latest effort, Elizabethtown). Upon entering the now rock-concert-friendly Webster Hall, a room once known exclusively for its dance mixes, fans were transported into a music-biz vortex. It was a big, New York show, the type of event characterized by long lines, pushy crowds and expensive drinks. Besides the abovementioned gentrified hippies and hipsters—-let’s call them hicksters for argument’s sake—-there were industry folks and genuine groupies, all of whom will help turn opening act Kathleen Williamson’s statement into a reality: “You’ll never see My Morning Jacket in a place this small again.” It’s as if My Morning Jacket’s greatest gift is its ability to make each individual audience member feel as if they personally discovered something new —- most likely because they still seem unsure of their place —- rock-stars on the eve of fame.
If the group’s once trademark long hair represented its road-warrior isolation, James’ stylish new do surely represents its future as critic darlings. But as the evening unfolded, all this seemed to weigh heavily on My Morning Jacket’s collective conscious. Gone are the lost EP cuts, the early song sketches and the trippy theatrics that turned the group into Manchester favorites. While not an intentional decision, by signing with ATO and playing the festival circuit, My Morning Jacket has attracted a good chunk of the hippie-rock crowd. In certain respects they represent the new wave of jam, seeded sometime around the millennium and ripened when Wilco and the Flaming Lips reset jam-rock’s ideals on Madison Square Garden’s stadium-size stage last New Year’s. Exactly a year later, My Morning Jacket will play Madison Square Garden alongside the Black Crowes and the North Mississippi Allstars. Likewise, in a recent interview conducted around anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death, James mentioned that “Candyman” is the Grateful Dead song which resonates the most in his own songwriting. Without even knowing it, My Morning Jacket will help return jam-rock to its arena-throne and, hopefully, the scene will still be there to see its success.