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Why My Morning Jacket Is the Best Live Band in the World

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.

Rainer Hosch

(Click to enlarge)

My Morning Jacket 2008: (clockwise from top left) Bo Koster, Patrick Hallahan, “Two Tone” Tommy, Carl Broemel, Jim James (center)

Rainer Hosch

(Click to enlarge)

Believe it or not, this band does a mean cover of Lionel Richie’s “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.

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.”

James had been in bands before, but Young’s performance, along with the then-popularity of grunge, galvanized James’ desire to make music, even if the Louisville scene wasn’t exactly what he had imagined.

“We grew up in a time when the hardcore and post-hardcore scenes were really huge, so we rebelled against that because we thought they were stuck up and isolating,” he says. “We never felt accepted. We had to create our own scene.”

School wasn’t James’ thing, either: “I always loved the concept of school, but nothing really spoke to me. I never really wanted to learn to read music, so that ruled out taking music classes.”

Ultimately, he landed at the University of Kentucky, where he studied art with the thought of one day becoming an art teacher or an art therapist. When the tiny indie Darla Records took interest in what eventually became The Tennessee Fire, James left Lexington after only a year and a half. The sprawling psych-folk of At Dawn and the more rocking It Still Moves followed, but as the band’s popularity peaked, two members abruptly quit: keyboardist Danny Cash and James’ cousin, co-founding member Johnny Quaid, who owned the farm/silo in Shelbyville, where the band had recorded their first three records. With yet another tour scheduled in less than two months, James himself nearly packed it in.

“We were so exhausted from touring, and we briefly thought about going as three-piece and, if that didn’t work, to just say ‘fuck it,’ ” James says. “I thought it would be lame to bring in new members.”

Despite James’ initial fears, the eventual addition of Koster and guitarist/saxophonist/vocalist Carl Broemel, the first two to audition, worked out perfectly, even down to their physical resemblance to Cash and Quaid. The new lineup also augured well for the recorded material, with the band’s next album, Z, marking a stunning leap forward. My Morning Jacket abandoned the heavy reverb and grain-silo recording technique of earlier albums in favor of an outside producer and a studio nestled in the Catskills. Spawning the kinda-sorta breakout single, the reggae-tinged “Off the Record,” Z finished with the second highest Metacritic score of 2005, behind only Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois.

Evil Urges, the group’s fifth LP, was one of the year’s most anticipated, and it doesn’t disappoint, as the band seems to find a common ground between the hazy hayseed vibe of the first two records and the proggy stoner-rock of Z. The PR shill that their label, ATO, is sending out claims, “My Morning Jacket have officially outgrown their ‘best live band reputation.’ Now ... they are ready to be the best band, period.” There’s probably a trace of hyperbole in that statement, but not much. Indeed, Joe Chiccarelli, the Grammy-nominated producer brought into work on Evil Urges, ranks MMJ among the finest units he’s worked with, a list that includes, among others, Frank Zappa, Elton John, Beck, the Shins and the White Stripes.

“Jim is one of the best songwriters in music. His lyrics are intelligent and thoughtful, and like all great rock & roll groups, the band’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Chiccarelli says. “Everyone’s strengths and weaknesses add up to something magical. When they click, they make their own noise, and as a producer, that’s what you live for. I’d put them in a league with Wilco or Radiohead.”

Evil Urges also finds the band experimenting with funk and soul in ways that had only been hinted at earlier with “Cobra,” and a widely circulated and gorgeous cover of Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone.” The new direction stems from James’ fascination with the idea of music at its peripheries and the constant search for that indefinable blur of sound when the concept of “genre” becomes meaningless.

“When I was writing the album, I was listening to a lot of gospel and ’70s soul,” says James, who recently relocated to New York City from his longtime Louisville home. “Curtis Mayfield. Marvin Gaye. Sam Cooke. The Hot Buttered Soul album and their roots back through the church, to the point when soul, funk and religious music became indistinguishable from one another.”

The album’s title, Evil Urges, reflects James’ own fascination with organized religion, morality and his personal struggles to find faith.

“It’s funny thinking of human beings and their urges, and how their urges can be unrealistic fantasies at times. The whole notion of morality has been skewed by organized religion. People end up doing all kinds of crazy things and are willing to engage in all sorts of arguments about faith,” James says. “I think about religion a lot, from listening to gospel music, to attending church trying to find some sort of faith for myself. I haven’t been able to find it yet. I’ve tried hard, but something’s just not hitting me.”

Maybe he should go to a My Morning Jacket concert.