My first taste of My Morning Jacket came in 2003 when the Kentucky indie rockers appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. I had no idea what to expect, however they looked like a band I should like, in particular front man Jim James - his face a mask of wild hair and wielding a Flying-V. It took only a few minutes of "One Big Holiday", the standout guitar epic from their revered third album, It Still Moves, to hook me faster than a large-mouth bass striking a Fat Rap. When James finished his mammoth solo to end their jaw-dropping performance, Conan walked on stage and proclaimed: "I am buying that record”! Since then, MMJ have developed an impressive cult following, are critical favourites and headline huge summer festivals; they’ve even appeared on Saturday Night Live. You’d think they’d be popular enough by now to play more appropriate venues like Toronto’s venerable Massey Hall given that pretty-boy posers, Kings of Leon, are filling arenas and amphitheatres, *gasp*, but only have a shred of MMJ’s talent.
On the same July 11th evening that found 60,000 packing the Rogers Centre and getting whitewashed by U2 (but still stroking Bono’s enormous ego), 1500-strong filled Kool Haus and caught MMJ in topnotch form. What a relief! Their last Toronto stopover in 2008 (also at freaking Kool Haus) was an uneven affair, mainly because the set focussed on genre-bending but generally disappointing, Evil Urges. I contemplated bailing on the boys if their follow-up LP, Circuital, turned out to be a stinker and the subsequent tour sucked. Well, even the sweltering summer temperature couldn't compete with the on-stage rock ‘n’ roll heat produced by James and company. The intensity-filled two-and-a-half hour concert never let up from the pulsing opener, “Victory Dance”, to the 6-song encore. In total, 26-songs got dusted off, spanning an impressively diverse career that began in 1998 when the quintet were decidedly rootsy instead of the bona fide rock powerhouse that they are today.
It was clear that the night was all about kicking out the jams.
Often stalking around stage draped in a cape resembling James Brown, a maniacal aerobics instructor or a mangy Superman, the magnetic James set the tone right out of the gate as he led the band through six straight hard-hitters including “Lay Low”, the finest southern anthem since “Free Bird”, and pop-psychedelic freak-out, “Off the Record” (both from 2005’s commercial breakthrough, Z – which I call “Zed”).
But they didn’t completely ignore their quieter side.
The acoustic twofer of beloved folk masterpiece, “Golden”, and Circuital’s, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)”, managed to calm things down a little, plus brought some relief to James’s taxed vocal chords. Old-timers longing to hear something from their less-sonic, alt-country beginnings were justly rewarded too with killer versions of “The Dark” from 1999’s Tennessee Fire, At Dawn’s “Phone Went West” and “The Way He Sings” from It Still Moves.
For the most part, selections from their previous three albums garnered the loudest hoots from the all-ages crowd, but Circuital’s southern-flavoured title track, soul-drenched rocker, “Holdin' on to Black Metal” and aforementioned “Wonderful” and “Victory Dance” have already become fan favourites.
A friend caught MMJ at the Ottawa Bluesfest a few days after Kool Haus and said: “By mid-set the band was already treating every song like it was a set ender”. In Toronto’s case, the band treated every song like it was a set ender. Perhaps this is why my two least favourite tunes in their cannon, the krautrock homage, “Highly Suspicious” and blue-eyed soul, “Wordless Chorus”, didn’t ruin the encore. Then again, capping the festivities with a thunderous “One Big Holiday” made sure of that.
Screw you Bono!
Photo: My Morning Jacket