My Morning Jacket

The Fillmore, San Francisco, November 11, 2005

I have seen My Morning Jacket perform from their very first gigs on stages not bigger than your average kitchen table, when most of their following seemed to be located only in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. In the course of the past six years, they have released four excellent albums, a handful of EPs, and they have changed guitarists, drummers, and pianists. The only two remaining “original” MMJ members are bass player Two Tone Tommy and front man Jim James. What hasn’t changed over the years, however, is the band’s energy and passion they put into their playing, whether it’s live or in the studio. MMJ is one of the best live acts you will ever see: loud, tight, and properly mind-blowing, with the band swinging their long hair and beards as if the Sixties have never left.

The band recently released their latest effort, Z, and they are finally beginning to get what they have deserved all these years: widespread attention and reviews in highbrow magazines throughout the U.S. and Europe. The album is another step forward: both a departure from the old MMJ catalogue and a further focusing of their sound. On Z, the band has moved beyond what critics have termed their “Southern rock” sound. They have, in a way, mechanized their music, employing drum computers and electronic effects. Their element of darkness is now less akin to Flannery O’Connor and more to Pink Floyd.

Curious to see how their new album would translate to the stage, I caught the first of their two-night stint at San Francisco’s The Fillmore. Both shows were sold out, something that, until recently, was pretty unheard of for MMJ.

MMJ took the stage before a background of creepy-looking trees. They opened with the first song on Z, “Wordless Chorus.” From the moment James started singing, it was clear that the sound was off. His reverb-heavy voice sounded flat and muffled. Perhaps it was the absence of guitars on the song, an oddity for this band. Things didn’t improve, however, with the second song. The main riff of “It Beats for You,” finger-picked on an acoustic guitar, got all but buried in the mix, and the bass and drums were the only instruments that did not sound warbled.

The band did not seem to notice, and neither did the audience. MMJ put on a great show, rocking harder and louder than most bands I had seen all year, and yet the bad sound prevented the show from being enjoyable. What was most disconcerting was when two electric guitars played at the same time. One guitar sounded fine, but when a second one started playing, they somehow collided in the mix and the result was a shrill, deafening fuzz. MMJ likes their distortion and reverb, and so often a melody could only be recognized half-way through the song.

The focus was on the new album, which was played in its entirety. Songs like “Dondante” and “Lay Low” were written to be played live, and indeed, on stage they roared and growled like hungry beasts. Nevertheless, the two-and-a-half hour show also featured much of the band’s older material. 1999’s The Tennessee Fire, 2001’s At Dawn, and 2003’s It Still Moves were equally represented. MMJ even offered some surprises, like the Christmas song “X-mas Curtain” and the beautiful acoustic pair “Hopefully” and “Bermuda Highway.” During the first song of the encore, “Into the Woods,” they even brought out the old guitar player, Johnny Quaid (who used to set his guitar on fire during gigs, but did not do so tonight).

On their website, the band had requested the audience to show up dressed like fairy-tale characters. The show was being recorded for a possible DVD-release, and MMJ wanted to have a magical forest theme. It was an odd experience to find oneself surrounded by such wondrous creatures like elves and wizards, many of them puffing on joints, and the band so lost in a monstrous mix.

-Deniz Kuypers