Live Review: My Morning Jacket with Strand of Oaks at The Moore 10/3/15

Live Reviews
Jacob Webb
photos by Alan Lawrence (view set)

Describing My Morning Jacket's live show is almost as difficult as describing their music. While tagging it with a reductive broad stroke isn't that hard ("rock music"), listing out the individual elements that play into the band's style can come off as too disparate to make it their music seem comprehensible, much less good. Occasionally lengthy, country-inflected, vaguely electronic, a little funky, spacily-melodic, danceable but not dance-y guitar jams doesn't sound like a winning combination. And, on top of all that, in a live setting, they're fronted by a guy who looks and acts like The Big Lebowski dressed up as a kimono-wearing version of American Jesus. But it doesn't just work, it soars. And, as the Kentucky quintent showed during a two-night stand at The Moore, fifteen-plus years mining that potent equation hasn't dulled it one bit. (This review refers to the second of the two nights.) Pulling from a catalog as rich and varied of any other band with their tenure, My Morning Jacket reaffirmed one guitar lick at a time that they're still one of the live circuit's most consistent and great live bands.

But before MMJ could mount the stage, however, Strand Of Oaks had a chance to continue their victory lap behind 2014's Heal, but even a year after Timothy Showalter's breakthrough release, he seems indefatigable. Clearly still riding the high of Heal, a last-gasp-power-drive of an album that actually followed through on being the desperation-channeling breakthrough Showalter needs, the Goshen, Indiana songwriter and his band had plenty of life in them as they plowed through "Heal", "Goshen '97", "Shut In", and a gorgeously howling "JM". Played by the current four-piece lineup, Heal's tracks have more muscle to them than their recorded counterparts, which works well in translating their urgency while losing barely any of their texture. While Showalter's plans to follow up Heal are anyone's guess – there's no replicating an album like it, which famously (literally) nearly killed him – he can, however, take solace in the fact that he's developed into a talented, grizzled road dog who can pull out a blazing 40 minutes without fail.

But, of course, Showalter was only the star of the night until Jim James walked out in a robe, sunglasses, and fancifully waving flowers at the audience. Perhaps because he's not as talkative (save for his sung lyrics, he didn't say a whole word the entire night) or rowdy as most frontmen, Jim James isn't mentioned in the conversation of best living frontmen as often as he should be. Which is too bad, because James is a complete rock star. He had the audience charmed before he even led the band into their opening number ("Circuital"), and a few songs later, he was blinding them with the reflected light of a spotlight off of the chrome pickguard of his Gibson Flying V all while ripping through a guitar solo. But, fortunately for James (and the audience), he has a guitar solo-foil of ten years on stage right in Carl Broemel, who plays the Ronnie Wood to James' Keith Richards just as well as he does his Mick Taylor. (That is, to say, he is just as good of a guitarist as James, albeit a more subtle one.) Doing nearly as many hair-flipping head nods as James, Broemel was the night's MVP, superbly serving as James's foil when the singer put down his guitar axe or working some smooth saxophone work into a song. If Broemel was the other end of the band's two-pronged attack, the band's other three members served as their undying engine. Drummer Patrick Hallahan pounds and strokes away with an aplomb that's only matched by his long, flowing locks, keyboardist Bo Koster augments the guitarists' tones with his own textural work (not to mention being the core of the thirteen-minute version of "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream, Part 2" that just might have been the show's best moment), and bassist Tom Blankenship, the band's longest serving member alongside James, lived up to his steady nature, holding down a thick bottom line in center stage when Broemel and James were at the edge of the audience trying to outdo the other's dive bomb solos. This lineup of the band, which has been intact for over a decade, has an undeniable chemistry, and when they expanded songs past their original length (especially during the show's middle third), they always felt in control and moving the songs along with purpose. (MMJ still occasionally gets the "jam band" tag, but unlike actual jam bands, James and co. know exactly where they're going with their expanded songs.)

Despite being on tour behind this year's The Waterfall, the setlist for the night was mostly represented by 2003's It Still Moves and 2011's Circuital, which was fine because those two albums show more stylistic depth (the latter utilizing reverb-laden country rock tropes, the former employing some of their most experimental and electronic directions to date) than any other dyad of MMJ albums could. (That's not to say The Waterfall isn't good - it very much is, and all four of its songs that ended up on the setlist were met with loud cheers.) But at least one song from every album was aired – and a cut from Jim James' solo album to boot – providing as complete of a picture as the band could in one night. (The previous night was far more heavy on the albums more sparsely represented on Saturday and omitted 2008's Evil Urges entirely, meaning that for those who went to both nights - and there were quite a few people who did – they received a two-night stand that played straight to hardcore My Morning Jacket fans.) 

When the night ended with typical set closer "One Big Holiday", perhaps still the band's best marriage of their penchant for country melodies and dive-bomb guitar heroics, the show had already covered as much ground as the band could be expected to in two-and-a-half hours. But – bear with the cliche – it still didn't feel like enough. My Morning Jacket's catalog is so rich that it's hard to summarize in two-and-a-half hours no matter which way you look at it. The loosely-defined hits they have don't really show the full picture of the band, and neither do the deep cuts, so it becomes more of a challenge to deliver a fully encompassing set every time they release an album. But that ability to provide such a thrilling yet incomplete look at their output is what makes My Morning Jacket still such a vital band. It's the same reason they can pull off a song called "Holdin' On to Black Metal" where a children's choir sings the titlular refrain. And the same reason they play large theatres and hold down high festival billings without really having a radio hit or even a single signature song. And the same reason a five-day festival centered on the band in Mexico City (a fine city, certainly, but not the most obvious pick for a band from Louisville, Kentucky) sold out earlier this year. They're truly one of a kind, from their music to their fuzzy moon boots.

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