Jim James, The Phoenix Theatre, Toronto, ON – 4/24
Photo By Jesse Goldberger
In Toronto’s storied Phoenix Theatre last Wednesday, April 24, as I watched My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James conduct his band through an emotional roller-coaster of a set, I was struck by a thought: this is what I wanted last month’s Sigur Ros show to sound like.
James brought his Regions of Light and Sound of God solo tour to an adoring and appreciative Canadian audience that was both receptive and restless. We were grateful for the chance to see the enigmatic James, who always puts on a good show, but there was an underlying sense of wanting more. With opening act Cold Specks – from nearby Etobicoke, Ontario – warming up the crowd, James and Co. sauntered onto the stage around 9:20pm looking loose and relaxed.
Without preamble, James launched into material from his first solo album with a measured sort of pace. It was loosely tight, with jams designed to showcase the range of James’ musical oeuvre and the spectrum of styles in which he can compose the music. Jams that on this night, even had band-mates watching and cheering each other on with nods of approval.
I use the term compose because, as he meandered around the stage, James not only observed his fellow musicians but directed them, cueing up a keyboard solo here, opening a deep hole for a bass line there, or clearing out of the way of a triple-percussion rhythm. I felt that if James was a film director, he’d be a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and Cecil B. De Mille.
Tracks like “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U)” and “A New Life” evoked lilting, soulful and sorrowful lows; they mingled with feelings of yearning and a kind of apprehension of the unknown, the sort of suspense Hitchcock knew came from the subconscious – the unseen and powerful forces James draws on in his music. This darkness was juxtaposed by the dense, flood-like harmonies of “Actress” and “All is Forgiven,” the powerful and evocative crescendos like DeMille’s climaxes, all sensory overload in full technicolour.
What this first set showed, more than anything else, was James ability to create contrasts – the haunting harmonies and the bluegrass boogies, soaring crescendos and cascading cavalcades of sound. There was a Jimmy Buffet-like island rhythm, some African-inspired beats and jazzy, 50s era swing sounds.
The type of experimentation James does on stage is reserved for only the most investigative and risk-taking of artists, in that it doesn’t always sound good – it’s not always pleasing, per se – but guys like Jack White and Jim James can get away with it. There was an almost scrupulous commitment to anti-harmonies, off-beat notes and clashing tempos that can split heads or summon angels. It felt as though he was challenging the crowd to find the meaning in the white noise.
After the complete-album first set, James began the second with an MMJ cover of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” and then worked through some Monsters of Folk material, including “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.),” “His Master’s Voice” and “Losin Yo Head,” the song that I think came closest to capturing that MMJ-outdoor-festival vibe. While it was cool to see this material live, it felt almost anti-climactic compared to the first set. This was more accessible, folksy material about prayer, love and spirituality and it seemed a bit…simple…when it was called on to follow up James’ solo stuff.
Having seen My Morning Jacket several times, I couldn’t help but observe a more subdued and level-headed Jim James than I’d seen in the past. There was hardly a hint of the cavorting wild-man, the vampire-cape wearing, slide-guitar animal I was expecting.
Instead, a suited-up James was purely in control on this night, stretching his wings and stepping out from behind the equal-opportunity of his other band and into solo territory of his own making. As he gathered in the love from the Toronto crowd – wielding a golden, praying-bear statue for fans to rub and presenting a single finger for the fist-bumping fans to touch – he seemed content with his offering to the hungry Canadian masses.