BY LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
This August, the greatest live act of all time returns to the stage after their longest ever hiatus and though we had to deal with the sorrow of missing My Morning Jacket together onstage for the past 15 1/2 months, that murky fear and uncertainty is quickly being replaced with a growing excitement that proves Jacket fans can go toe-to-toe with any other group of renowned cultish devotion.
The members of My Morning Jacket haven't been far from view themselves, whether it's been the lads releasing solo projects, touring more than they should, cooking gourmet meals with celebrity chefs or pulling off a duet with Kermit the Frog, the band haven't spent much of this time relaxing at all.
There have been interviews (since 2016) where Jim James claimed the band had two new studio albums and a live record / DVD already finished, though neither has seen the light from the shelf during this wilderness period sadly, though with the band active once again, there is a lot of action going on behind the scenes.
But as for what we do know, My Morning Jacket will finally return to the stable of their greatest ever non-Bonnaroo triumphs: two hot August nights among the sand and ethereal apocalypse of Red Rocks, followed by a trip to the East Coast to play the legendary Capitol Theatre (the first shows at The Cap since their epic three night stand at the Port Chester venue in 2012: easily three of the greatest Jacket shows of all time) and finally this mini tour ends with a one night stand at Forest Hills tennis stadium in Queens, all supporting a startling and thick reissue of the band's debut album The Tennessee Fire.
You won't hear the current configuration's towering guitar symphonics in the desolate twilight of their stark, nocturnal debut, but Fire's "Flaming Lips high on The Band" mixture has imprinted its DNA on the band ever since, an inescapable signature that's gripped itself to MMJ for the past 20 years.
How they've always been able to faithfully recreate the spooky Southern Gothic vibes of The Tennessee Fire material onstage is a testament to MMJ's versatility and improvement upon Carl Broemel and Bo Koster joining the fold.
Under the schooled musical knowledge of Carl and Bo, combined with the natural synthesis of Jim, Patrick and Tom's easy morning chemistry, My Morning Jacket have taken the creaky, cabin-esque hymnals of their first record to a higher level of expression than the studio recording could've ever pointed to. As Jim James said recently, "the way we do it live now is the way I always imagined it..."
The mastermind behind My Morning Jacket's songs, Jim James, obviously had a plan when he first began writing and recording music on his own.
After the relative "failure" of his earlier group Months of Sundays, Jim was like any other late 90s college dropout slacker: roaming local record stores, getting kicked out of Wilco shows and working shitty jobs (Jim worked at Subway and was also a janitor).
But Jim had significant musical dreams and he soon began stockpiling one great song after another, playing this music just for himself. Though, Jim was creating magic at a rate even a young Isaac Brock would be proud of.
It should blow any Jacket fans' mind when you discover that the first MMJ show in 1999 featured "One Big Holiday" and "I Will Sing You Songs", two masterpieces that wouldn't be heard on the grooves of an official Jacket record until the band's third album in 2003.
The fact that Jim could hold back a song as good as "One Big Holiday" proves the Kentucky boy's intentions from the get-go.
He didn't want to be a flash in the pan or a flavor of the month...had he wanted that, he would've stuck all of his greatest songs on Tennessee Fire or at least on the second record, At Dawn. Instead, Jim knew exactly what band he wanted to be a part of and what the project would ultimately become.
It would be a long road to gaining the hard-earned and fabled legacy they've now attained in 2019 but the journey was filled with many crossroads to ruining a career or selling one's soul...and the fact that this group of five men were able to avoid these pitfalls and create a continuum of fantastic music and live shows (that any classic rock fanboy would have to change their pants after) is beyond impressive.
It speaks to their soul.
And Jim couldn't have dreamed of (nor planned) the path My Morning Jacket has taken any better.
Those cold, vicious years on the road in the early 2000s could've ruined the band before anyone had ever really heard them: Jim's cousin / lead guitarist and songwriting foil Johnny Quaid and keyboardist Danny Cash split in the middle of a U.K tour in late 2003 amid exhaustion and fears of financial instability. This was, as Patrick Hallahan put it, the "band at their lowest" while Jim openly admits he thought his "dream was over".
However, like all things MMJ, the group turned this horrendous situation in their favor. This lineup change would alter the band's aesthetic only slightly, yet the differences broke the band worldwide and improved MMJ on many levels.
When Carl Broemel and Bo Koster joined the band in early 2004, this unholy union established the band as a dynamic, bonafide rock and roll presence. Immediately, the two Midwestern boys fit in like missing puzzle pieces and juiced My Morning Jacket up from clangy "Southern fried rock" to a full on all-encompassing musical beast with a potent psychedelic attack.
The continued greatness of MMJ in the studio only cemented this rise and expanded their sonic reach upon the arrival of each new album, At Dawn winning praises from Dave Grohl to the level of opening for The Foo Fighters in Australia and It Still Moves delivering on the potential and promise of those first two records. Accordingly, with each strategically awesome show, the ante had to be upped.
First, it was Bonnaroo 2004 in the middle of a rainstorm, playing "Steam Engine" without a care in the world as to whether they would be electrocuted or turn into an emanating pillar of light, entrancing some 5-6,000 disciples in the Manchester, Tennessee fields that day.
Then the legend from that fateful gig spread far and wide in the rarest way possible any band could experience: pure word of mouth in the 21st Century...no internet buzz or hype...no influencers or tastemakers...just great music by a phenomenal fucking band. With this elevated visibility, shows as magical as Bonnaroo 2004 became an every night expectation: My Morning Jacket had to give everything, every single night as if it were their last gig...
Just as they evolved personally and expanded their fanbase, they exposed the power of their music by continuously reinterpreting its core.
In the 20 years since its release, My Morning Jacket have charred the ghostly embers of their debut record live, jettisoning the wandering studio sketches of "The Bear", "War Begun", "They Ran", "The Dark" and "It's About Twilight Now" into atmospheric beasts that scream for the ultimate.
When the band made their first leap into the stratosphere after the line-up change and the dual releases of Z and accompanying live album / DVD Okonokos in 2005 and 2006, the band's live show went from apex to apex.
Jim, Tom, Patrick, Carl and Bo were playing 3 or even 4 hour shows, unleashing their massive discography upon the masses, opening for admirers Pearl Jam in Europe and the East Coast (a trek that gained them many new fans) or tackling the most daunting covers and reinventing them (George Michael's "Father Figure", Christopher Cross's "Ride Like The Wind" or fixing up the funk riff of Sly and The Family Stone's "Thank U Fa Lettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin" into a gargantuan grind of humbucker pulsation).
My Morning Jacket only continued to expand and transform into something even more special and extreme when they put out the polarizing (but awesome) Evil Urges, an LP that caught Jim hungering for a funk-fix and soon to follow were career-setting moments of pure spectacle.
In 2008, My Morning Jacket played two shows that are still among the biggest legends in the band's history. Not only did they burn Bonnaroo to the ground with an unbelievable 4 hour show that featured guests ranging from Metallica's Kirk Hammett to comedian Zach Galifinakis, they also performed at Madison Square Garden for the first time ever, selling it out for another 4 hour extravaganza, this time on New Year's Eve.
The Jacket kept the momentum building, even while in the midst of personal tragedy when making 2011's Circuital (Tom's father tragically passing away) and endlessly touring for nearly three years for the album, with breaks in 2012 before resuming touring in late summer.
This was the "year of the Bear" as some fans have dubbed the Spontaneous Curation Tour and featured some of the band's greatest shows, tightest playing and wildest set lists and it is a tour I'm proud to say was the first time I witnessed the power of the band in the flesh (8/2/2012). These historic performances led up to yet another substantial New Year's Eve run beginning at the Capitol Theater and ending with a cursory 3 hour New Year's Eve night gig at Agganis Arena in Boston.
Throughout this time, the group didn't fluctuate much. They had their own lives, but they remained in contact and hung out while off the road, constantly backing each other up on the other's solo gigs or merely hanging out as a fan to support their fellow band mates endeavors. There's even been sightings of band member's family being in attendance at each member' solo concerts, showing the very real and very true family vibe within the band's entourage. Jim James decided to put out solo records in 2013, 2016 and again in 2017 and 2018, each record showing the startling trajectory of a growing artist leaving his fingerprints.
Though it became noticeable by 2015 that Jim James' back injury had lessened his head banging and drum riser diving, their overall live presentation is currently so immense that they could be sitting down, taking a shit with their backs to us and we'd still be aghast at their musical prowess.
And as every great band knows, there is no perfect show without the perfect crew: and my gawwwd does The Jacket have that.
Beginning on the Z tour in 2005, My Morning Jacket have surrounded and aligned themselves with people of honor and loyalty (a rarity in the music business), such as their manager Eric Mayers and long-time sound tech Ryan Pickett.
Specifically due to the efforts of Pickett, My Morning Jacket will always be the best sounding live band out there. The audience recordings, captured by our wonderful tapers😚, sound better than most soundboards and the audio quality of footage shot from fans' phones have made what would normally be an unseen and poor sounding souvenir become fan honored treasures, all because of the power and depth of how MMJ sound in a room.
And to go with the light and shade (aka the breezy pummeling) of their live sound, The Jacket have deployed Marc Janowitz's state of the art light show (that started really taking thematic flight during the 2011 Circuital tour and arrived at even more dizzying new heights for New Year's Eve 2017) to visualize the character of each song.
These elements make the typical Jacket concert one of the best shows you've ever seen and when you dare to witness them on a multi-night stand, on New Year's Eve or at Red Rocks, this heightened professionalism and blissful spontaneity turns a simple night of music into a life altering experience.
Fuck, this is a unit that flawlessly performed The Who's "A Quick One (While He's Away)" and The Stones' "Loving Cup" back to back and both still sounded like My Morning Jacket.
So now in 2019, with a titanic live history to contend and compete with as they return for their first live shows since March 2018, My Morning Jacket have set a high bar. Especially when you consider how their last moments onstage were an otherworldly multi-night New Year's Eve stand in stoney, freezing cold Denver followed by three consecutive 3 hour marathons in which they played their entire discography front to back at a tropical resort, nary an annoying casual fan shouting for "I'm Amazed" to be found.
This legacy has only grown since My Morning Jacket's withdrawal from touring and recording: their absence increasing the demand for their magical presence tenfold.
As each year goes by in which horrific "music" is being shoved down the throats of "consumers", footage of Jim James destroying the frets of his ES-335, or sights of the filthy synchronicity between bassist Tom "Two Tone Tommy" Blankenship and greatest drummer in the world Patrick Hallahan and the scenes of Jacket-Fan-Utopia, feels like an alternative universe in which the 70s and 2000s were combined...and this "modern fucking with vintage" aspect creates an even higher premium for such an experience: real...unbridled rock and roll given to us by men who love what they do and hardcore fans willing to pay an arm and a leg to be there.
But I wonder...does it ever get demanding to usurp the last 3 and a half hour gig? Or outdoing the 14 minute "Run Thru" from the night before? Or trying to top each epic "Celestial Jam" at the end of "Phone Went West"?
"That's why we stopped playing the three main monsters 'Phone', 'Dondante' and 'Steam Engine' all in the same show," Jim said in 2016, "it's more to keep each song fresh and entertaining for us where each time we play them will be completely different from the time before."
And while keeping it new and exciting for themselves each show, they also sustain their status as the most generous live unit in history and at the same time ensure those songs live in earned infamy as rarities.
Chances are high that you'll see more true deep cuts and shocking song choices in one or two MMJ shows than you ever would seeing The Rolling Stones 50 times or Metallica 25 times. I've only seen My Morning Jacket 5 times and have witnessed 7 live debuts and 13 songs that have been played less than 10 times total...
This is a band that refuses to repeat the same set list night after night and in fact, if you're lucky enough to see them for a multi-night stand, you'll never hear the same song twice, as pure a demonstration of professionalism, badass musicianship and generosity that only Wilco have since copied.
But here we are...the Red Rocks shows are only hours away and fans from all over the world have descended upon Morrison, Colorado like a pack of rabid hyenas, waiting patiently for the moment they can get unhinged and devour...knowing the day is coming when the rock and roll avengers will take to the stage once again.
And what new surprises will MMJ have in store for us?
And to what maddening heights will the band ascend to during these shows?
The My Morning Jacket community has been building up to these events for a year now and with the anticipation for the nights at Red Rocks themselves, the band are fast becoming something more...something intangible, unspoken...a psychedelic void where all genres meet and have drunken sex, a subterranean reality where an Ennio Morricone guitar riff and a coked out disco beat hold hands...a galaxy, it turns out, that isn't too far away.
Because of their intense fans, their loyal and hardworking crew and the joyous values of the members themselves, there is a light that never goes out when speaking of the surreal phenomena that is My Morning Jacket.
No matter how dark their music can become or how cynical (the usually optimistic) Jim James' lyrics have begun to sound (see "Get the Point" and "Big Decisions"), the fans of this maniacal group are drawn to this unspoken feeling everyone (who "gets it") feels.
It's been 20 years of this shit, gals and guys...20 years of Jim James' charcoal honey voice singing some of the greatest lyrics since Bob Dylan found Jesus, 20 years of Tom Blankenship's leathery tight bass swimming upstream against a current of Patrick Hallahan drum fills, it's been 15 years of guitarist Carl Broemel and keyboardist Bo Koster bringing their talents to the fore and enabling The Jacket to become the "Midwestern / Southern Pink Floyd", it's been 20 years of constant sonic evolution even as the core nucleus flavors of the band have stayed marinating, it's been 20 years of outrageous musical output, it's been 20 years of live maximum rock and roll...from the Rudyard Kipling to the Paradiso, the Fillmore to Bonnaroo, Terminal 5 to Madison Square Garden and Merriweather Post Pavilion to Red Rocks, the greatest live musical force on planet earth has spread their sound far and wide.
And after 20 years, what keeps the flame still burning as a fan?
For me, it will always be the mystery of My Morning Jacket.
How long will Jim "hide" behind those sunglasses?
What drugs did they do in which eras?
Who was hooked on what?
Who fucked who?
Who cheated on who's girlfriend?
How much dope was found in the trunk of whichever band member's car?
Who went to jail after a DUI?
Is a member of the band gonna be in the next #MeToo takedown article?
These questions are common for most rock and roll bands...but My Morning Jacket are different.
We don't know any of the band member's personal struggles, we don't know about their personal habits, we don't really know that much about their lives as human beings. As the years have gone on, Jim James (especially) has been quite forthcoming in revealing some juicy nuggets, yet besides the Denver car crash in 2013 (which is itself mired in mystery and legal googoojagoob), there isn't much scandal or drama in this band.
On one hand that is extremely refreshing and rewarding in a world swirling with the abyss of death, war and division.
It's beautiful to have a band of five men you can watch without feeling sick to your stomach, instead you can feel proud of Carl, Bo, Patrick, Tom and Jim. The vibe they share and the promise they carry, above all else, above a long and hearty dose of primal rock and roll: peace and love to all people.
The vibe that's usually around indie bands with 20 years under their belt and a cult following would usually mean fans having to endure the glares of middle-aged drunken snobs who think they "were the first", though with My Morning Jacket fans there's always a willingness to include, share and deal the best drug of all: love.
On the other hand, there is a darker mystery to the band that captures the secret imaginations of every single die hard Jacket fan, no matter how optimistic. We listen to this music with full knowledge that these are men who've lived, breathed and fought for rock and roll, going on two decades now...playing 866 shows total in your career would carry with it a whole bewildering mess of struggles.
We'll never truly understand the price they've had to pay to create, perform and sustain this music.
Jim James fucked his back up for this music. Patrick, Tom, Bo and Carl have spent an awful lot of time away from their children on the road over the years...I hope they didn't miss out on too much, because it was all paving the way for this era, for this moment.
They worked their asses into the ground for these years: where they can play 1 or 100 shows a year, head into the studio and record another album or not, release an eagerly anticipated live album of one of the only un-bootlegged Jacket runs at the Beacon Theater or not, record an entire studio album while making The Waterfall and release it...or not, reissue their entire catalogue from A-Z (pun totally intended)...or not...the band can do whatever the hell they want in 2019 and they've earned it.
Red Rocks 2019 will feel like a lifetime in two nights as the band shoots for the stars, knowing anything is possible, realizing how far they've come and how much they've accomplished in such a wide stretch of time and what could be waiting just around the corner.
The feeling is one of infinite infancy...that we're at the beginning of the ultimate...the manifestation of something brilliant and overwhelming altogether.
There is nothing that can make you wanna freak out in hallucinogenic servitude more than the ultimate rock and roll festivusgenesis that is "Mahgeetah".
There is no darker emotional urchin music than "Steam Engine".
There is no tunnel of truth as intense or as deep as "Dondante".
There is no current songwriter I can think of who could eternally reason with one's self to conceive such things as "Cobra", "Wordless Chorus", "Lay Low" or "I Think I'm Going To Hell" and there is nowhere to put your face after what Carl does to the end of "It Beats 4 U" and "Masterplan".
There is no substitute for the spiral magnitude of "Phone Went West's" Celestial Jam and there is nothing that can be done to help the mind after a high octane "Run Thru".
If you think I've become stupefied by hyperbole, you just don't get the Jacket, bro.
I believe...wait, I know just like the crest of an autumnal passage in a "War Begun" jam, that we're on to something...we're on the brink and we need to strap in tight.
Buckle up and wear your helmets, keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times...especially you lucky 9,500 who'll be at Red Rocks each night and the corresponding shows on the East Coast.
Shit's about to get heavy.
by LONN JACKSON PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
August 1st & 2nd 2019
"Peace, Love and Jacket Vibes"