By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
As the band cranked into the familiar, funky strains of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” an atomic jolt seized our frames, already buzzing from the adrenaline of the New Year. You could almost feel the white welts of electricity crackling feverishly across the heaving crowd. Bodies flailed in unison, dancing as though we had been covered by the pink happy goop from Ghostbusters II. Or the first hysterical flushes of an Ecstasy trip, touching our face and arms with the sublimity of raw euphoria. Pure beatitude, the blood battering its way to our brains. Was this really real?
It was, and they kept going, unleashing consecutive covers of Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” and Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” treating each with reverent elasticity. Buoyed by the preternatural poetry of James’ levitating, panoramic wail, both band and crowd disappeared into the most atavistic notions of sound: music as catharsis, as joy. This was something special, we understood, a band so adept they could do anything they wanted. And at the moment when it seemed to veer dangerously close to schmaltz, they instinctively understood the need to draw back, breaking into the disco stomp of the rarely played fan favorite “Cobra,” from the band’s 2002 Chocolate and Ice EP. Hallelujah.
I suppose the cosmic shock of it all stems partially from the notion that it doesn’t seem possible for a band like My Morning Jacket to exist anymore. In this fractionalized, indie-skewing world of 2008, rock stars are considered to be dinosaurs. We’ve had some great music in this decade, sure, but other than maybe Jack White, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone remotely qualified for the appellation rock star. The Arcade Fire may boast the most ballyhooed live act of recent vintage, but as a frontman, Win Butler seems more pallbearer than Paul Stanley, with a pasty, joyless scowl permanently scarring his face. Even James himself considers the idea of a “rock star” to be a slightly antiquated conceit.
“When vinyl was king and there wasn’t any MTV or YouTube, you had to imagine so much more,” James says. “You’d stare at a band’s pictures in magazines and listen to their record. And when they came to town, it was an event. Nirvana and Pearl Jam might have been the last of a breed.”
So maybe Jim James is a new kind of rock star, one blessed with a postmodern self-awareness and the sense of humor you’d expect from a guy who lists Rushmore as his favorite film, Dave Eggers and Haruki Murakami as his favorite contemporary writers, and The Muppet Show as one of his earliest musical inspirations. It’s this amiable goofiness that shines live, in the form of nonsensical asides about “Careless Whisper” really being about bananas. It’s the band’s weird wardrobe. It’s the nearly childlike thrill James seems to get from performing.
Bassist Two-Tone Tommy, the only constant other than James in My Morning Jacket’s nine-year existence, describes his bandmate as “hilarious and unpredictable. I’ve known the guy for 10 years, and I still never know what his new songs will sound like or what the artwork will look like. He’s a tough one to read.”
Koster, who joined the band prior to the recording of the space-rock opus Z, describes James in similar terms: “He has so many sides to his personality, and he’s always surprising me. Sometimes, stuff will come out and you’ll scratch your head wondering where that came from. He’s serious and intellectual and smart as can be, yet he’s still been able to retain that childlike imaginative quality that most of us lose somewhere along the way.”
Of course, when My Morning Jacket first came to national prominence in 2003 with their major-label debut, It Still Moves, every rock hack rushed to pigeonhole them alongside the Kings of Leon in some never-materialized Southern Rock Revival. The comparison reportedly irked the band, and for good reason, as it amounted to little more than flying hair + flying V’s + improvisation/Louisville = neo–Allman Brothers/Lynyrd Skynyrd. It didn’t help matters when the band did a cover of “Freebird” in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown. But when you listen to their first three records, the name that most readily comes to mind is Skynyrd’s erstwhile rival Neil Young, whose plaintive, moonlight warble provides the foundation for much of James’ early work. Indeed, one of the Louisville native’s most indelible memories is watching the singer on Saturday Night Live.
“I was in eighth grade and I’d never heard of Neil Young before,” James says. “My mom and I were watching SNL, and I really loved it. The next day, my mom bought Harvest, thinking it was Harvest Moon, and I had my mind ripped to pieces.”