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 on a foggy New Year's morning in San Francisco; 2006 had just flowed into 2007 and, in honor of the holiday, the band transformed the storied Fillmore Auditorium 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, 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," echoes keyboardist Bo Koster. "Except we weren't."
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. 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 has the power to stop time. I can assure you 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.
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 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.
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 band mate 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."
Evil Urges, the group's fifth LP, was one of the year's most anticipated releases, and it doesn't disappoint, as the band seems to find a common ground between the hazy hayseed vibe of its 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 in to work on Evil Urges, ranks MMJ among the finest units he's worked with, a list that includes Frank Zappa, Elton John, Beck, The Shins and The White Stripes.
"Jim is one of the best songwriters in music," Chiccarelli says. "His lyrics are intelligent and thoughtful, and like all great rock 'n' roll groups, the band's whole is greater than the sum of its parts. 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—which is why it's no surprise, then, that James found himself listening to lots of gospel and '70s soul as he wrote Evil Urges. It helped him recall a time, he says, "when soul, funk and religious music became indistinguishable from one another."
The album's title, meanwhile, reflects James' own fascination with organized religion, morality and his personal struggles to find faith.
"I think about religion a lot," he says, "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.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.