If song really is one of the few conduits of human contact with a higher power, the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco is a Sistine Chapel, with its lobby strewn with framed photos of nearly every act to headline a “Bill Graham Presents” show. You name it and it’s there: Led Zep. Floyd. The Dead. Neil Young & Crazy Horse. The Who. The Rolling Stones. The entirety of our Old Testament in a wall-to-wall display of canonized saints that conventional baby-boomer wisdom submits as unimpeachable evidence that things really were better back in their day. But I don’t buy it.
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My Morning Jacket 2008: (clockwise from top left) Bo Koster, Patrick Hallahan, Two Tone Tommy, Carl Broemel, Jim James (center)
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Believe it or not, this band does a mean cover of Lionel Richies All Night Long (and Careless Whisper too).
I’m not sure of the exact moment when My Morning Jacket became the best live band in the world, but I’ll never forget the instant I realized it. It was at 12:10 a.m. on a foggy New Year’s morning in San Francisco; 2006 had just flowed into 2007. In honor of the holiday, the band transformed the Fillmore stage into a faux–Oregon Trail campground, replete with a forest-green pastoral scrim, fake snow and ice, stuffed coyotes, skulls, pine shrubs, boulders, rusty lanterns and skeletons. Dressed as Western pioneers (save for Hallahan, who donned an Indian warrior headdress and face paint), the band, fronted by a Deadwood-looking man named Jim James, had commenced their first set two hours earlier with a rambling, funny, eight-minute monologue that concluded with them going Donner Party on bassist Two-Tone Tommy and then resurrecting him in time for a blistering rendition of “One Big Holiday.”
The theme had been cooked up on the tour bus, says James, My Morning Jacket’s singer, songwriter and founder, when the band decided to think of the “craziest, stupidest thing that they could do for New Year’s Eve.”
“It was the kind of thing that you would think could only have been conceived by people that were very, very high. Except we weren’t,” echoes keyboardist Koster.
The same couldn’t be said for the crowd, many of whom had taken full advantage of San Francisco’s liberal drug policy during the revelatory first set. But to an audience of die-hards, it seemed nothing more than the run-of-the-mill greatness they’d come to expect from the band’s femur-fracturing live show: Jim James leaping onto subwoofers, all whirling wrath, flying hair and flying V’s. Patrick Hallahan smashing his drum kit with bruising, caveman snare hits. Bo Koster’s psychedelic keys, which sound like Pink Floyd writing the score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And Two-Tone Tommy’s bass lines, which would make Donald “Duck” Dunn proud.
When they’re on, My Morning Jacket have the power to stop time. This puts them in a rarefied category with Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell, Rufus from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Dr. Emmett L. Brown of Back to the Future (and even he needed a DeLorean, plutonium and/or well-timed lightning). Granted, this might sound a bit far-fetched, but I can assure you that it’s true: I’ve seen them do it too many times and have heard too many stories from others to believe otherwise. On more than one occasion, I’ve had complete strangers turn to me and ask, “Are they always this good?” Sometimes they’re even better, I usually answer.
Listen to the bootleg of the marathon three-and-a-half-hour set at the 2006 Bonnaroo, complete with Rolling Stones, Flying Burrito Brothers and Misfits covers, not to mention a thunderous 10-minute version of the Who’s mini-opera, “A Quick One (While He’s Away),” that somehow captured the fury of Townshend & Co., without Xeroxing it, and you’re a convert. Or maybe you’d prefer the soundboard from My Morning Jacket’s two-night prom, held last March at the 40 Watt in Athens, complete with vintage pink and aqua-blue tuxes ostensibly swiped from the closets of Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne. (For the record, MMJ do a fantastic cover of “Oh, What a Night.”)
I wasn’t there for either of those shows, but those who were speak of them with a messianic zeal. Instead, my Damascus vision came during the second set of that New Year’s night at the Fillmore, during the first few wobbly breaths of 2007. There, I saw the Louisville, Kentucky, quintet reroute the minds of all 1,250 people onto an identical frequency, sweeping us toward the dim awareness that for a few ephemeral moments, for at least a couple of songs, this was the only place to be. It was the sort of pure and rare transcendence that only needed confirmation via the stunned stare of the stranger next to me, our jaws ajar, our bodies shaking to the backbeat of the perfect rhythm, our skulls split from the clarion revelation of something Kurt Vonnegut once said he wanted for his epitaph: The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.