LEWISTON – My Morning Jacket has been everywhere since forming in Louisville, Kentucky in 1998 – from Mohawk Place and the Showplace Theatre in Buffalo, to the exalted festival stages of Bonaroo in Tennessee, to the surreal beauty of the natural amphitheater at Red Rocks in Colorado. Yet the band’s front man Jim James gave Artpark in Lewiston the highest of marks during the band’s stellar set at the venue on Wednesday.
“This is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever played, and I’m gonna tell all of my friends out there on the road the same,” James told the assembled three songs into My Morning Jacket’s set.
Leaders of rock bands often say this kind of thing, but James proved his sincerity by leading MMJ through a lengthy and inspired set of tunes culled largely from the band’s new “The Waterfall” album, but also pulling from a deep canon of songs that traces this wonderful band’s evolution from barely post alt-country buzz item to fully-fledged fusion ensemble capable of drawing from 70s soul, progressive rock, 80s alternative, old school country, and spacious psychedlia with equal skill.
The sun setting to the side of the stage as the group – James, guitarist Carl Broemel, bassist Tom Blankenship, keyboardist Bo Koster, and drummer Patrick Hallahan – played new tunes “Compound Fracture” and “Spring (Among the Living)” was impossible to interpret with anything other than a poetic sensibility. When the Older reggae-inflected “Off the Record” arrived, it seemed to summon a group-think reaction from the crowd, one that involved dancing and embracing strangers, be they familiar or otherwise. A late-in-the-set “Only Memories Remain” proved that MMJ knows its way around a Beatle-esque ballad, and reminded us that drawing inspiration from the greatest of the greats requires much more inspiration than imitation.
MMJ draws a devout crowd of true fans, and these seemed to be the people filling the lower bowl of Artpark’s outdoor amphitheater on Wednesday. Singing along was acceptable behavior from the get-go, and pumping fists to “Wordless Chorus,” in all its harmony-laden glory, took place as if an unspoken agreement had pre-ordained it near the set’s end.
Early on, a group of newcomers to MMJ approached me, their leader offering a “Yeah, I know you love these guys, they’re pretty good,” to which I replied, “Just wait – they build it and build it, until it explodes.” I got a few blank looks. But I doubt I would’ve if I’d encountered these same folks on the way out – that’s exactly what MMJ did. It was a slow-burn, with many soulful and simmering dynamic crescendos lorded over by guitarists James and Broemel, and tunes that commenced as gentle country roll-alongs and eventually exploded into full-bore guitar-fueled epics recalling the glory days of Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
Through it all, it was James – both his hook-laden but always surprising songwriting and arrangements, and his incredibly agile alto singing voice – whose hands were on the reigns. The man’s singing voice cut to the quick, whether indulging in a lilting falsetto or embracing a full-on arena-rock scream. Because James is so flexible, MMJ can deliver a southern rock rave-up or a legitimate Motown or Stax R&B burner with equal conviction. Throughout Wednesday’s show, all of these diverse elements commingled in a glorious cacophony of Americana.
MMJ is one of the truly remarkable bands to have emerged in the past two decades, and Wednesday’s show underscored this fact. It was a magical evening, and one that offered proof that modern alternative music can be at once adventurous and accessible.