My Morning Jacket | 12.31.08 | NYC

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Listen to MMJ’s NYE show here

Words by: Wesley Hodges | Images by: Dave Vann

My Morning Jacket :: 12.31.08 :: Madison Square Garden :: New York, NY

MMJ :: 12.31.08 :: MSG
When any concert or festival of note is announced six months in advance, the anticipation, speculation and expectations can sometimes overwhelm what is actually possible at said event. When it was announced last June that there would be “An Evening With My Morning Jacket” at Madison Square Garden, it just didn’t seem quite right because we’ve seen the band in numerous smaller clubs and theaters over the past few years. But, if there is a band that has paid their dues and organically created a larger fan base without heavy TV or radio support, it is My Morning Jacket. To paraphrase the words of “Golden,” boldly booking an arena after years of clubs and theaters could either fall apart or make them millionaires. This was the kind of “If you bill it, they will come” attitude that could pay dividends down the road. Many message boards, fans and naysayers alike speculated that My Morning Jacket could show up to a sparsely attended MSG and play to echoes. But after selling out Radio City Music Hall in a matter of minutes this past summer, people should’ve seen the writing on the wall. This band was ready to step up to the plate in the “World’s Most Famous Arena” and knock it out of the park.

About ten minutes before the band would take the stage, NYC DJ and pop culture stalwart Matt Pinfield came out to announce that the band would be out in a few minutes and that they had a lot in store for us. At this point, the building was less than half full and it looked as if the naysayers could be right, but by the time the house lights went down, the place was slammed and the band was ready to play only their third show since Jim James‘ mysterious injury back in early October. To kick it off, the band, joined by Jeff Coffin, Steven Bernstein and the 615/502 Horn Section picked up where they last played together this year at Bonnaroo, with James showing off his inner soul side, delivering the funkadelic truth and symbolically covering Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” to kick off the New Year’s extravaganza in style.

MMJ :: 12.31.08 :: MSG
The horn section stayed on board for “Evil Urges,” which was unsurprisingly the first of many tunes from the band’s newest record. Z favorites “Off the Record” and “Gideon” followed. Playing a song like “Off the Record” early in the set is always a good move because it aptly showcases the two sides of the band that make them such a great and highly acclaimed live band. Starting with a poppy reggae riff and a great lyrical hook, the song takes a foray to a darker place, replete with intensely psychedelic vibrating guitar soloing and Two-Tone Tommy‘s swirling bass before it tapers seamlessly into an achingly slow burning outro suite. As they did at this year’s already legendary late night Bonnaroo set, an ungodly amount of glow sticks rained down during the “Come On!” apex of “Gideon” and the crowd and band responded with heightened intensity. The next several songs were considerably slower, giving the borderline meltdown intensity of the audience a chance to level out and take in some slower jams.

These guys understand the old adage that “sometimes less is more” as good as anyone and songs like “Golden” and “Thank You Too!” exude this in such a pristine and beautiful way. These tunes, along with unplayed tracks like “Hopefully,” “Knot Comes Loose” and “Nashville to Kentucky,” are less about showcasing dexterous guitar solos and seeing how many notes and movements a song can have and more about affecting the listener in a way that a mind-bending rock epic can’t. These songs allow James’ angelic voice to reverberate endlessly and take the listener on a journey through a series of human emotions. Central Texas’ own Will Johnson from the band Centro-matic joined the band on backing vocals for “Golden,” adding even more harmonic textures towards the end of the song and giving it an even brighter sheen than ever before. It was great to hear James sing the phrase, “What does it mean to feel?/ millions of dreams come real?” having heard the story about MMJ in their early days jokingly making posters in their hometown that announced they were playing at Madison Square Garden and then seeing that dream manifest itself in reality. Seeing them in such a famed venue was undoubtedly a surreal feeling, and I assume the band felt a little out of body at times in such a large space on such an important night in New York City.

Jim James :: 12.31.08 :: MSG
Following the always mellow “Librarian,” James invited singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins onstage for a fun take on Marvin Gaye & Tammy Terrell’s “You’re All I Need,” where the chemistry between the two performers was undeniable. Another pair of tracks from Z followed with a razor-sharp “What a Wonderful Man” and a downright muscular, blistering, astonishing “slashterpiece” reading of “Lay Low,” which was arguably the strongest tune of the night with Carl Broemel and Jim James playing with unbelievable power and syncing at all the right times as the song progressed towards its preposterously strong finish. A better-than-usual “Phone Went West” and a solo performance of “Look At You” segued perfectly into “Dondante,” where an eerie stillness came over the crowd as James’ lonesome, ethereal voice softly belted out the dreamy opening verses. Like many of MMJ’s greatest songs, “Dondante” slowly builds to an extended explosion of syncopated psychedelic euphoria that is brought on by a moment of vocal exposition that only James could do justice to. This song has taken many forms over the years, and on this occasion it turned into a punishing, hardcore bruiser with guitarists James and Broemel trading speed metal riffs with drummer Patrick Hallahan‘s gut busting drum fills before finally returning to its original delicate state as multi-instrumentalist Broemel played an ominous, tonally lustrous saxophone outro, returning the song to its original cold, dark place. From this point forward in the show, things were in full-out My Morning Jacket overdrive, with no more room for anything but heavy hitters.

“Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Part 2” was a dance party that hinted at the general vibe of the 2009 set that would follow. The band froze at the end of “Touch Me Part 2” and the P.A. played the “WTF?” screech at the end of Evil Urges known as “Good Intentions.” The hefty, slow motion guitar journey of “Run Thru” came next, and this event had officially taken on the form of a larger-than-life monster show. The horn section was no more notable than during It Still Moves favorite “Dancefloors,” giving it a feel close to its original album form. As the ball drop grew closer, the band ripped through the many phases of anticipatory classic rocker “Mahgeetah” and then exited stage right for a short break. One down, one to go, big things poppin’.

Happy New Year! :: 12.31.08 :: MSG
During the set break, a huge white curtain dropped in front of the stage showing a countdown clock and various clips before playing the uplifting final speech from Charlie Chaplin’s satirical The Great Dictator. Many were miffed at the beginning of Chaplin’s speech but understood the meaning of it as Chaplin said:

In all men, in you, you the people have the power. The power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

The curtain rose quickly and a much looser, dapper My Morning Jacket kicked off 2009 in white tuxedoes with tails and top hats – truly dressed to impress. The Jacket got things started in a big way blasting into the New Year with a pair of covers that felt too good to be considered cliché. Putting the dirt over a topsy-turvy 2008 was cause for Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” (“A celebration to last throughout the year”) that coupled nicely with another Kool cover, “Get Down On It.” After all, when you have a four-piece horn section you might as well play as much 60s/70s funk and soul as possible, right?

“Wordless Chorus” came next and, as always, featured a crowd full of people all doing their best to harmonize with James. “Wordless” was released in 2005 as the opening track on Z, and the lines, “But you know/ all of this can change/ Remember the promise as a kid you made/ We are the innovators/ They are the imitators,” seem prophetic now that MMJ has reached the upper pedestal of live music. The divisive, psycho-funk rocker “Highly Suspicious” was followed by the even more bizarre synth-bass groover “Cobra,” a deep track from the Chocolate and Ice EP that has become a fan favorite over the past few years. Next, James brought Atkins back for a brilliant take on Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream.”

Nicole Atkins & Jim James :: 12.31.08 :: MSG
Following the duet, homage was paid to the great Sam Cooke with “Bring It On Home To Me,” and they made it three covers in a row with James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” where Mr. James struck up the band with his twirling white cane on a version of the tune that would’ve made the Godfather proud. The first time I saw MMJ do “Cold Sweat” was the first time I finally realized that James was not simply a great lead singer of a great band but the type of performer with the talent, charisma and gusto to make a great show outstanding and memorable. With only a little time left, the guys chose to finish the night on their own closing with the momentous rocker “Anytime,” where keyboardist Bo Koster jumped and James asked, “Is this climbing up to the moon?” as the show pushed through the stratosphere towards the pantheon of historically relevant rock concerts. It was only fitting that on the most important night of their career they would close with their most popular song, namely “One Big Holiday,” the song that helped them raise the bar from relative obscurity to a band that could maybe, one day, be sort of… big. It was definitely the right choice for the closer. No matter how many times I hear it played live or listen to the studio version, it always elevates the mood of the room and it certainly sent everyone home smiling and ready to celebrate further. After many rounds of cheers and applause, the band came together center stage for a final bow.

MMJ :: 12.31.08 :: MSG
Lastly, the band joined their special guests at the onstage bar for a round of libations and James leading the audience through a surly version of “Auld Lang Syne,” which is really the only way the song should be performed. Once again, My Morning Jacket had knocked it out of park when they needed to most, a testament to the preparation the band pours into specialty nights and festival sets, always putting a personal touch on each event for concertgoers to remember and treasure forever.

It is always special to watch a band at the peak of their career and right now it seems MMJ has reached the rarefied territory where there are no boundaries to what they can achieve musically or professionally. Their ears are as big as the enormous venues they are beginning to regularly fill, proven by their obvious affection for so many differing styles of music. Their appeal is genre defying and almost universal, reaching metal-loving heads, jam band fans and even the oftentimes fickle indie rock blogosphere. Although probably few woke up on New Year’s Day feeling good or limber, there was a feeling that we had just witnessed something special, or if nothing else, the most kick ass party in New York City on this New Years Eve.

MMJ :: 12.31.08 :: MSG

My Morning Jacket :: 12.31.08 :: Madison Square Garden :: New York City
Set I: Move On Up (Curtis Mayfield)*, Evil Urges*, Off The Record, Gideon, The Way That He Sings, Thank You Too, I’m Amazed, Golden w/Will Johnson, Librarian, You’re All I Need (Marvin Gaye) w/Nicole Atkins*, Express Yourself (Charles Wright)*, Wonderful Man, Lay Low, Phone Went West, Look At You, Dondante, Smoking from Shootin > Touch Me Part 2 > Run Thru, I’m A Wanderer (Dion)*, Dancefloors*, Mahgeetah
Set II: Countdown > Celebration (Kool & The Gang)* > Get Down On It (Kool & The Gang)*, Wordless Chorus, Highly Suspicious, Cobra, Islands In The Stream w/Nicole Atkins (Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers), Bring It on Home to Me (Sam Cooke)*, Cold Sweat (James Brown)*, Anytime, One Big Holiday
*-w/NYE horns

You can see lots more pics from MMJ on NYE at MSG here.

And be sure to check out our Band Of The Year feature on MMJ here

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