My Morning Jacket | 09.19.08 | Berkeley

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Jay Blakesberg & Dave Vann

My Morning Jacket :: 09.19.08 :: Greek Theatre :: Berkeley, CA

Jim James rockin' the cape :: 09.19 :: Greek by Blakesberg
All day – hell, all week – leading up to My Morning Jacket's performance at the legendary Greek Theatre in the navy bluest city in America, all the hardcore music aficionados around me had butterflies, real twittering excitement about a concert. These are folks that would greet an undiscovered Beatles album recorded between Rubber Soul and Revolver with cautious skepticism. But, MMJ busts through such cynicism, reminding us how songs can change our lives, if only for a few minutes. I sometimes feel like putting on bobby socks and listening to their albums on a tiny portable turntable while daydreaming on the floor of my room. Sure, go ahead and call me a giant silly but My Morning Jacket is a boyfriend that keeps on giving, and their showing at the Greek only affirmed that kind of irrational, joyous love in a big way.

Setting matters and seeing one's favorite bands perform at the Greek is like a visit to the Parthenon with big amp stacks and smoke machines. Before a note is uttered it's already grand, elevated in scale by the giant columns and massive rising steps that encircle the stage. Not every band has the presence to fill this space but such was not the case with MMJ, who have long played music with stratospheric reach and cloud tickling potential. Emerging into a light drizzle (baptism anyone?), Jim James' high flyin' bird falsetto cut the air, inciting our chakras to action with opener "Evil Urges," reminding us that we are neither dead nor naughty from the waist down and leading us into a dance where the steps mattered less than full, enthusiastic participation. With MMJ, one gets as much out of the live experience as they put in. This is a very participatory group led by a frequently caped ringleader with a fabulous Jewfro, driven, lifted and pushed by a symbiotic audience relationship, which seems to grow stronger and more intricate each year. At the Greek, few moaning choruses or inhibition snapping yelps onstage went un-echoed in the stalls. As separated and alone as most days feel, this Friday felt so bloody together. Come on people now, smile on your brother... and your sister, too!

"This is a glossy, misty battlefield. A great battlefield," mused James early on. "Thank you for joining us on the battlefield where everyone wins."

My Morning Jacket :: 09.19 :: Greek by Blakesberg
For something still pretty loose in many ways, their music is increasingly filled out, brilliantly permeated with small keyboard licks, honey harmonies and air guitar inspiring solos. Watching them, listening with full attention, one felt them stretch the songs, limbering them up so they run up the hill faster or tumble down laughing. They're unafraid to court a good reaction, playing up both the clichés and pleasures of a proper rock show – James stalking the stage like Max Schreck's hirsute offspring during "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Pt. 1" and Carl Broemel and James' super suede '70s El Camino rockin' guitar dueling on "Off The Record" are just two early-in-the-show examples. They want – shit, they ache - to produce a flutter in your chest like the one they clearly carry around with them everyday. About five songs in, it arrived for me during "The Way That He Sings," with the wings inside beating even stronger during an explosively liberating "I'm Amazed."

I suspect the way MMJ makes some of us feel is akin to what a new Platters or Steve Wonder single used to do to people – sudden, beautifully composed reminders of the loveliness and sadness of this world, resonant yin & yang you can sing-along to. Morning Jacket's increased willingness to be unguardedly pretty, sweet and honest (to wit, the stunning readings of "Sec Walkin" and "Thank You Too!") encourages us to drop our coolness and just swoon, which many folks did. I found myself slow dancing with a tipsy stranger on the way to the restroom during "Golden" (introduced by James as "that fall nostalgia feeling that creeps into all your blood vessels") and similar outbursts of connectivity and irrepressible happiness broke out around me all night.

My Morning Jacket :: 09.19 :: Greek by Vann
By the time we were asked "So, are you ready to go?" on "Mahgeetah," most were already well into the journey, the mind-body connection near total with the band rollicking their hearts out onstage. Always thankful for the gift of presence (i.e. feeling fully engaged in the immediate moment), I looked around, brushing sweaty hair and tiny raindrops from my glasses, and noticed how rapt and glowing most of the crowd was. Most of us let out a breathy sigh during "Librarian," which froze time and stilled the air in the way McCartney's "Yesterday" or Gillian Welch's "Time The Revelator" can, though I'd argue MMJ's slice of life is the strongest in the bunch simply because it takes giant size ideas (mirrors, body image, sexual politics, real world politics) and folds them into a moment we can all relate to. Who hasn't longed in the very fiber of their being for someone they've only seen from afar? Who hasn't imagined a life of quiet delight with a stranger amongst the stacks? If you haven't, I feel a little sorry for you, and if you have, well, this song will bring all those emotions right back up to the surface in ways that may make you blush.

Even without the angelic association it's apparent just by mood and scope that "Gideon" is holy music, particularly when it melts into "Dondante" with patient space rock flair. Pink Floyd-esque? Sort of, but MMJ's ramblers have an off-kilter nature that wouldn't sit well with control freaks like Gilmour or Waters. There's usually a little mess in ecstatic worship and this pair had a fair amount of noodle slop over their long minutes but the atmosphere was complete and intoxicating nonetheless.

Jim James :: 09.19 :: Greek by Vann
What else to note? The 1980 disco undercurrent to a strobe light addled "Touch Me Pt. 2" was swell and made me wish some waif in spaghetti straps and stilettos were dragging me off to the loo to do comically huge lines off her compact. Ah, memories. Main set closing "Run Thru" was its usual heavy anxiety monster, and set us up nicely for the sunnier seven-song encore, where James saluted Bay Area folks as "a bunch of fuckin' awesome weirdoes, just like us. You remind us that weirdness is alive and well."

Anyone who doesn't want their tonsils coated by the peanut butter pudding surprise of "Highly Suspicious" can bite me. Two times. Unfurled with Prince-ian abandon, "Suspicious" reminded us that real soul is strange, truly a hamhock in your cornflakes. Cape returned for "Lay Low," which was given a street patter delivery over the crying unison guitars. "One Big Holiday" closed the evening, and without hype it is their "Freebird" or "Green Grass and High Tides" in concert, a song of majestic, unifying largeness. And you should have heard how we punched the "California" when he sang about the bad man!

Stumbling into the street, cheeks sore from grinning, I could only think, "If you didn't have a good time tonight then you didn't want to." My Morning Jacket offers us a gift each time they plug in. It's up to us to receive it, and in the best world, to return it to them ("cause everything'd be great/ everything'd be good/ if everybody gave like everybody could"). Enjoying the cool but now clear night in Berkeley, I wanted for nothing and a casual survey of those around me said the feeling was largely mutual. Maybe they could have used a little 1984 Van Halen style pyrotechnics and some lasers, but other than that everything one could want from a rock show was there and then some. But it's true, lasers would be cool.

Jim James - My Morning Jacket :: 09.19 :: The Greek by Jay Blakesberg
09.19.08 :: Greek Theatre :: Berkeley, CA
Evil Urges, Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Pt.1, Off The Record, Aluminum Park, The Way That He Sings, I'm Amazed, What A Wonderful Man, Sec Walkin, War Begun, Dancefloors, Thank You Too!, Mahgeetah, Golden, Librarian, Phone Went West, Gideon, Dondante, Smoking From Shootin, Touch Me I'm Going To Scream Pt.2, Run Thru
Encore: Wordless Chorus, Highly Suspicious, Cobra, Rollin Back, Lay Low, Anytime, One Big Holiday

Continue reading for more images of MMJ at The Greek...


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