My Morning Jacket
Verizon Theatre, Grand Prairie
Saturday, October 24, 2015
On Saturday night in Grand Prairie, Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket served up a show designed for the most hardcore of their famously loyal fan base. If anyone in the barely half-full Verizon Theatre had arrived as either a casual acquaintances of MMJ’s work or as a complete newbie, this sometimes uneven, jam-intensive performance likely didn’t convert them to a higher level of devotion. But for those who worship at the feet of Jim James’ rock god-ness, it was a night packed with the right kind of spirit.
Since the group’s breakthrough 2005 album, Z, few American rock acts have ascended as high as My Morning Jacket. Each new release in the past decade has found Billboard chart success, and even when the reviews haven’t been that great (Read: 2008’s Prince-ish and prog-rock mashup Evil Urges), magazine covers and major headlining festival slots have been automatic for the band that began in 1998 as a rough-hewn, twang-inflected indie outfit. But given the largely empty theater (depending on whether you're a venue half-full or venue half-empty kind of person), it's impossible not to question how strong the American rock landscape is on a broad scale. And it's a question with an answer few rock fans will want to hear.
Since 2005, one would be hard-pressed to name an American rock act that's been a bigger success than MMJ. To varying degrees, the Black Keys, Jack White, Death Cab for Cutie, Flaming Lips, Kings of Leon and Wilco, among a scant few others, are the only other acts that occupy the same lofty commercial and critical status My Morning Jacket does, though each were well-established prior to becoming the top-of-the-poster names they are now. But which is the next domestic artist or band that will pack arenas and the larger theaters such as Verizon? A couple of Texans, St. Vincent and Gary Clark Jr., seem to be on such a progressive track, and another Kentucky-based group with a solid resume already, Cage the Elephant, seems poised to hit the arena-rock jackpot sooner rather than later.
But should the current most popular band from the Bluegrass State continue to be likable, unpredictable oddballs, as suggested by their recent, admirable LP, Waterfall, it’s tough to imagine a larger North Texas crowd showing up to drench themselves in glowing strobe lights while James’ trademark falsetto soars into those empty upper sections of seating. Judging from the actual show on Saturday night, however, it’s safe to say that James is thrilled to preach to the devoted flock of the converted, and not to those who may still be seeking a musical church home.
Lengthy post-song jams dominated the two-hour set. Some of those song extensions, specifically at the end of the reggae rocker “Off the Record,” were jubilant, cathartic, frenzied moments. But other examples found the band getting bogged down and bringing a halt to any momentum they had built with the set. After the majestic new song, “Believe,” packed with the type of guitar bombast that would make Pete Townshend proud, the band pulled back on the tempo for songs like the neo-soul styled “War Begun” and “Quick Like a Flash.” In both cases, the relatively calm pace of the tunes with meandering, extended tail ends came off as self-indulgent, more so than groove- and vibe-driven expressions.
Throughout the night, James — his wavy, dirty blond hair meeting the collar of his black, flowing robe — soldiered on vocally. Attempts to hit the highest notes in the quicker tunes, such as “Circuital” and “First Light,” often displayed an authentic vulnerability, the sign of an artist giving it his all in the midst of a hyper-busy tour schedule. But James really brought home the goods when he dug down deep to belt his dreamy falsetto during numbers such as the arena-prog “Spring (Among the Living).”
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The finest examples of My Morning Jacket's work, and James' specifically, were the first two songs of the encore. Both “Victory Dance,” from 2011’s Circuital, and “Wordless Chorus,” from Z, provided a bold, tight rhythm that James confidently strode on as he let out smooth, powerful and piercing yelps that were adored by the audience, the tension in each song building to an anthemic crescendo from which the entire band burst forth.
At the end of the night, it was obvious that 3,000 or 4,000 true believers are more valuable to a big rock show than an arena’s worth of chatty agnostics. In “Wordless Chorus,” James impeccably summed up his group’s relationship with not only their fervent fans, but with their place in the world of rock music, when he melodically boasted, “We are the innovators/They are the imitators.”