By Chris Pacifico
The whole idea of a live album can be a bit tricky for all bands, especially for a great band like the Kentucky boys of My Morning Jacket. Let's face it - out of all the groundbreaking artists of the past 40 years who've cut a live one, about 90 percent of them seem to be sub-par. And no, the live downloaded Phish and .moe bootlegs that you listened to in your college dorm while sucking on a glass Jerome Baker piece don't count. Sure, the concerts at which they were recorded must've been enjoyable for the fans, but it can be very taxing when attempting to capture the essence of what it's like being there as a concertgoer in that exact moment. A double-disc album, Okonokos was recorded last November during a two-night stint at The Fillmore in San Francisco, while touring in support of their latest release Z, which was on many critics' year-end top ten lists. Okonokos exhibits the majestic semblance of MMJ's live shows and proves that they are not a jam band but instead a band that just knows how to jam.
Disc one's opening salvo, the bubbly "Wordless Chorus," warms up the album with front man Jim James' falsetto-laden "ahhhs" and "whooos," then segues into the creaking "It Beats 4 U." The first two tracks sort of taxi the runway for the disc, but it is with the epic "Gideon" that it truly takes off and sounds like James is singing all alone at the peak of a mountain in a deserted land, trying to establish contact when he hits that high note. Any listener who has had the privilege of witnessing a live MMJ show knows that "One Big Holiday" is among their most empowering live numbers and tells the seasoned music aficionado that My Morning Jacket was made for the era of vinyl, when the dual onslaught of guitars from James and guitarist Carl Broemel hits the listener's ears.
Also on the set list is the early Elton John-ish "What a Wonderful Man" with a tad of a baroque tone and "Off the Record," which begins with some rock-steady dub funk before gliding into some ambient martini lounge space pop. Drummer Patrick Hallahan makes his presence felt when "Lay Low" comes around with his thudding and reverberating bass drum tremors before the extended electric guitar overdrive is throttled.
Whereas the first disc showcases MMJ's raw energy, disc 2 exhibits their more somber and bittersweet side. The first two openers are among the band's chilliest and moodiest songs in their catalogue. Its maiden ditty is the eleven-minute crescendo "Dondante" with James' elastic bellowing and a rather mournful saxophone infusion provided by Broemel as Bo Koester's keyboard licks just outright fizz on "Run Thru." It is with this disc's tracks that most of the fans probably had their lighters in the air and became utterly mesmerized. A My Morning Jacket show wouldn't be the same without a hypnotic barn-burner, and they provide one no less than stellar with the upbeat, down-home Kentucky feel of "Dancefloors."
One of the many aspects that can render a live album a turkey is the sonic augmentation given to it post-concert. However, it seems as if mixer Michael Brauer (Paul McCartney, Coldplay) and the album's mastering by veteran Bob Ludwig (Tool, Nirvana) have done with Okonokos what Tom Down did in 1971 for the Allman Brothers on At Fillmore East and what his counterpart Bob Johnston did in 1968 for Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison. He's captured the entire essence of the band's live synergy and the dexterity among the crowd regarding how they connect with the music. With Okonokos My Morning Jacket has established the precise middle-ground that exists between studio album and live album, which always rings true no matter what format you hear them.
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