For a long time, My Morning Jacket was a prolific American rock band I was peripherally aware of but never checked out in earnest, although I owned and liked 2005's Z. Then last year I found myself immersed in family life and the alcohol-fueled drama of drumming in a touring, recording rock trio when "Outta My System," the highlight of MMJ's 2011 album Circuital, made its way into my consciousness and eerily gave me the feeling frontman Jim James was reading my mind. I was hooked.
So it was a joy to stand just feet from James on Friday night when MMJ brought its dark, versatile saloon-rock to the stage on a beautiful Red Rocks evening. The bearded, long-haired James was inconspicuously dressed in brown pants and a black dress shirt, but a bright blue poncho/cape nodded at the wonderful outrageousness of rock 'n' roll — which often vaults quirky, unattractive men with given names like James Olliges to stardom — in an age when a non-jamband without a radio hit to its name can admirably pack America's best outdoor venue two nights in a row.
Hilariously, propped up next to James' amplifiers was a large stuffed, poncho-wearing bear clearly meant as a tribute to James. And the bear did fairly resemble the singer-songwriter-guitarist, save for being stationary.
Starting off with a couple of rollicking tunes from its early days — I'm not yet enough of a MMJ-phile to have recognized them — the group showed that their catalog is deep enough and good enough to wait six songs into a set to play anything off its current release. That's when "Outta My System" was unleashed, and the majority of the crowd knew every powerful word, including:
If you don't live now you ain't even trying
And then you on your way to a mid-life crisis
Livin' it out, any way you feel
— especially James and the larger, hairier drummer Patrick Hallahan — from long hair and dark clothing to James' Flying V guitar. And the metal energy and volume are there, too. But both groups somehow pull listeners into a metal-like fever pitch (most ironically during MMJ's Friday sing-along performance of "Holdin' on to Black Metal," which is Rockies OF Tyler Colvin's walk-on song at Coors Field) while the music sits firmly in its Americana roots.Like the stellar opening act Band of Horses (I sadly missed early opener Trombone Shorty), MMJ has the look of a metal band
Where Band of Horses' steadily building, crowd-pleasing set (which peaked with the powerful "Funeral") juxtaposed a heavy dose of psychedelic indie hard-rock ("Is There a Ghost?") with an updated form of genuine Hank Williams balladry ("No One's Gonna Love You"), James and MMJ impressed by putting their visionary stamp on a wide-range of American music. From MMJ's "Masters of War"-esque march of "Victory Dance" (which also recalls XTC's "Complicated Game") to the lovely, Woody Guthrie-influenced ballad "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)" to the band's incredible cover of Erykah Badu's "Tyrone," James and Co. dazzled by remaining themselves, and very much wielding their heavyweight rock chops, while jumping all over the pop music map.
In truth, MMJ's covers at Red Rocks on Friday night (also including Elton John, INXS and the Clash) were as apt, effective and original as any I've heard since, coincidentally, Cee-Loo Green's Band of Horses cover.
Not that MMJ can do no wrong. Sure it's nitpicking, but the awe-inspiring pace of its concerts sort of leaves inadequate room to thoroughly enjoy what one is seeing, which is possibly the great rock band of our time (not indie or alternative or psychedelic but just plain rock). Only once during the first 22 songs of the night can I remember James verbally acknowledge the crowd, and only to give a standard "How's everyone feeling?" and comment on everything feeling right in the universe when you're seeing a decent show at Red Rocks, which is true.
Quantity is not the correct gauge when it comes to banter, but a few more instances of breaking the fourth wall would've made Friday a little more enjoyable for me. Maybe I'm old now but, unless I'm seeing a Ween show, I'd rather see the setlist cut by a few songs and some quality Master of Ceremonies work added than wonder if I'll ever catch my breath.
Not I'm complaining. In the end, what I'll remember most from Friday is the absolutely stunning vocal prowess of both James and Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell, a slight, young-looking frontman who is 34, the same age as James. Both men have thick, high-pitched voices that carry enough to command and hold attention at massive venues like Red Rocks, and somehow not only cut through but own the huge sound of their very loud, otherwise guitar-driven bands.
Both are men from the South who took country music and, with a little dark psychedelia and a lot of electric guitar, made it something both entirely different and entirely related.
Now to catch my breath and finally get the rest of My Morning Jacket's albums.
Adam Perry blogs at adamperrywrites.wordpress.com