Lollapalooza 2011, Saturday: My Morning Jacket
The best part about watching My Morning Jacket’s set wasn’t watching Jim James pogo across the stage in those adorable furry white boots. He didn’t break those out tonight unfortunately, though you could hardly blame him. It's August after all. No, simply submitting to the man’s voice felt like an act of communion; his warm, high tenor like a care package sent from another era. To have that kind of nuance is rare in rock & roll these days. James' lungs are strong enough to soar over an electric band—one that proudly displays its credentials—yet gentle enough so that it feels as though he’s speaking directly to you. It's an incredibly effective balancing act. James kept the audience hanging on every word. He may not have had as many ears to fill as Eminem, but does that surprise anyone at this point? (More than anything it sent me back three years when Wilco was in a similar position, headlining a modestly-attended north stage opposite Rage Against the Machine, whose testosterone-enhanced audience nearly caused a riot.) MMJ’s never been a Top 40 act. Rather, the Louisville quintet’s a consummate live band, and one whose career has already outstripped many of its peers. That they could easily have kept going beyond the allotted two hours says a lot about its enduring appeal. This is a group that knows how to stretch out live. The first five songs alone filled 30 minutes.
That’s not to say MMJ are a jam band, as they’ve been erroneously labeled on occasion. Heaven forbid. But like many acts swimming in that genre pool, James and co. have worked their way up the ranks relatively free of fanfare, building a grass-roots audience with a live show that relies on few gimmicks. Behind the band hung several trapezoidal screens that acted like portals, displaying cascading shots of various landscapes. But even that was deployed sparingly. James may be an artists’ favorite, palling around with M. Ward, Conor Oberst and that other guy in the Monsters of Folk, or singing a hook for the Roots, but he's only a rock star in the sense that he really rocks. The rest of it he doesn't seem to take too seriously.
Mercifully side-stepping the standard-issue Chicago shout-outs that seem to open nearly every set here, MMJ instead hit the ground running with “Victory Dance,” the opening cut off this year’s slept-on Circuital, followed by the title-track after which the reggae-tinged “Off the Record” sent the crowd over the edge. Hands waved in unison, ecstatic yet composed. “One of my first concerts was Lollapalooza ’94 in Cincinnati,” James recalled at one point fondly, noting that he was a sophomore in high school at the time before thanking those in attendance this evening, sincerely wowed that he was heading up the 20th anniversary installment. His banter between songs may be humble, but his body not so. James and drummer Patrick Hallahan were in lock step, their matching curls raining down and whipped around at every opportunity. Seeing him strap on a Flying V for “Lay Low” was a treat, not to mention the rare solo that followed. For the most part the leads were left to guitarist Carl Broemel, who’s simply magnetic on the instrument (he’s not bad on sax, either). The hooky “Outta My System” followed, a song whose surfy contours and fraught context invokes Brian Wilson in more ways than one.
For a band that’s earned its reputation with eclectic covers and marathon sets, tonight felt like a triumphant reversal. There were no covers (bucking a trend this year), there was no camp. Just pure American rock & soul. The transcendent “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” emerged toward the end of the set, prompting the crowd to recreate the choir on record as rich blue and red hues bathed Butler Field. If that one went over well its reception was dwarfed by the closer, “One Big Holiday,” which saw the crowd simply erupt as if it were the only tune they'd been waiting to hear all evening. With Lolla’s strict curfew in effect, that was it. But as I made my way west down Monroe, hearing the refrain “BLACK METAL” echo from the mouths of satisfied fans felt like such a progression from a year ago, when arrogant chants of “U-S-A” infected the loop following Arcade Fire. Instead, this felt like the apex of the entire weekend thus far. See below for the full set list:
“Off the Record”
“Outta My System”
“The Way That He Sings”
“Slow Slow Tune”
“Smokin from Shootin”
“Touch Me I'm Going to Scream Pt.2”
“The Day Is Coming”
“Holdin’ on to Black Metal”
“One Big Holiday”