My Morning Jacket buck rock tradition

by Ryan Snyder

My Morning Jacket put on an arena-worthy performance in Greensboro.

(photo by Ryan Snyder)

Twenty years from now, when classic-rock radio is still on an endless rotation of Steppenwolf and Deep Purple and My Morning Jacket is a nostalgia-fueled arena headliner without a nationwide FM presence, the cold reality of obsolescence might finally dawn upon the rockists of yore. Since their earliest years, the Louisville band have possessed all the makings of what made the Allmans, CCR and Led Zep so great: tunes that latch on immediately and don’t let go, audacious ideas about the conventions of American music, massive guitar solos and, of course, lots and lots of hair. But while My Morning Jacket have masterfully synthesized funk, country, soul and electronic into a rock framework over the course of six albums, the MMJ bandwagon is still welcoming of all.

With their Dec. 12 performance at the War Memorial Auditorium, My Morning Jacket’s showed themselves to be a band that is as musically progressive as a rock band can be with having a set list littered with arrows and asterisks. Their jam roots noted, the band that was named Paste magazine’s Best Live Show of 2011 have never embraced open-endedness in quite the same way as their festivalian peers. Frontman Jim James followed his muse down paths that might have alienated fans that swore by the echoic Southern drawl of The Tennessee Fire to It Still Moves. As a slew of copycats were making reasonable facsimiles just as MMJ began to season their sound with elements of trip-hop and space rock, a lot of early fans strayed (guilty) once James donned the velvet dinner jacket, pulled his hair back and started looking respectable for magazine covers.

On stage these days, they’re still no longer the shoeless, ramshackle Kentucky hippies of 2003. Now they’re the quintessential arena band fronted by the quintessential rock frontman in possession of a catalog that’s like an almanac of American influences. Their Monday night setlist touched on their entire discography save for At Dawn, yet still embraced the dusty Rust Belt balladry of “Golden,” the retro pop of “Off the Record” and the headbanger “First Light” over the course of 21 songs.

There was a time early on when James was content to spend a show staring at his feet, crooning in his distinctively nasally tenor amidst waves of reverb, but that persona has been traded for that of a traipsing, somewhat eccentric dynamo. James entered the War Memorial during smoldering opener “Victory Dance” with an effects panel hanging from his neck, manipulating it as the song rose to a breathtaking climax. He donned a cape for “Wordless Chorus” and a towel over his mane for almost the entire second act. Beams from a spotlight positioned on the side of the stage bounced off of his Gibson Flying V and around the room as he heroically soloed on “It Beats 4 U.” He has embraced his role as the centerpiece of one of the finest rock bands in the world, but the whole of My Morning Jacket is still greater than the sum of its parts.

After James, easily the most charismatic figure in the band is drummer Patrick Hallahan, whose jarring fills and avalanche of bass kicks dominated heavier numbers like “Outta My System.” His guest spot with spectacular opener Delta Spirit on their song “White Table” displayed a Keith Moon-like abandon as he bashed away on a bass drum with a pair of sticks. The band’s guitarist Carl Broemel quietly bolstered whatever direction the setlist took them as he traded licks with James, but when My Morning Jacket tapped into the electro-shaded fury of Evil Urges on “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream” and “Smokin from Shootin,” it was keyboardist Bo Koster who stood out.

After releasing one of the finest holiday offerings of the year earlier in the week, it was Morning jacket in a nutshell. There was the only mildly disappointing for none of those tunes to be included in a five-song, half-hour encore, though lucky sound-check ticket holders were treated to a countrified “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The encore, however, was My smoky soul of “Wordless Chorus,” the arenasized folk of “Circuital” and finished off by the massive rocker “One Big Holiday,” a song built for classic rock radio that may never see it. But honestly, who cares?