Thursday, August 4, 2011

Day 78: My Morning Jacket review

(NOTE: So even the jobless can have fun once in a while. Last night we went to Kansas City to see My Morning Jacket. I had to review it.)

Words like “great” and “awesome” have eroded to meaninglessness. They’re overused.

So how to describe the show My Morning jacket put on at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City on Wednesday, Aug. 3?

The wordstorm would have to include the two worn-out descriptors, as well as epic, inspirational, and unforgettable.

Opener Delta Spirit, a San Diego five-piece, provided a strong warm-up with an enthusiastic and hard-rocking 35-minute set. I’d never heard of these guys but they demanded attention. After their show and before the Jacket hit the stage, I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only one in the audience who Googled them.

At 8:30 sharp, the lights dimmed and MMJ took the stage. For the next 2:20, alchemy.

How it is that a band that’s been building its reputation for more than a dozen years can still be relative unknowns is a mystery. Critics love this band. Fans worship them. Yet through six progressively more imaginative studio releases, a handful of intriguing EPs and side projects, and live releases that focus on the Jacket’s riveting stage craft, they remain just under the radar of huge commercial success.

Which, I guess, kind of speaks to the belief that mainstream music fans are pretty much idiots. “Glee” and Gaga and God knows who else can sell millions of records, but the Jacket can’t. (NB: I actually like Gaga, but to choose between paying $47 to see MMJ at the Uptown or a free Gaga show… no contest.)

Look, the music either resonates with you or it doesn’t. Individual taste is obviously completely subjective. But the five guys in this band leave no doubt that they are invested. At the end of the night, you realize that you’ve seen musicians play as if they’d never get the chance to play again. It’s an all-out assault. I’ve seen these guys twice, and I’ve never seen a moment when they weren’t playing with as much heart and energy as they could possibly give. You just know.

The band’s frontman and founder Jim James is the furry face of the band, and MMJ without him would be like the Doors without Jim Morrison. James is hardly your typical rock God: he’s a little chunky and his stage mannerisms are a little odd… on a sweltering KC night, he sported a long coat most of the night, sometimes switched that out for a cape, sometimes wore what looked to be a blue towel on his head… Jim, it’s freaking hot, are you sure?

A couple of times he played obviously to the crowd, but never felt hammy or contrived. When I first saw MMJ (in Dallas, right in front of the stage just days after the band filmed its “Okonokos” footage in SF), he mugged for photos to the adoring crowd. He’s obviously tuned into a cosmic radio station the rest of us don’t have a subscription to… which perhaps explains some of his stage talismans… different colored bottles near his “workspace” that go untouched, or the gold bear (it looked like a honey bear about 1.5 times the size of a football) that he clutched before the band left for the night)… best advice is for us to just go with it. Whatever muses he uses are worth how we benefit.

It’s possible this band feeds off a crowd’s energy, and maybe that accounts for the blistering show MMJ put on Wednesday. James ate it up.

But don’t shortchange the rest of the band. Co-founder Tom Blankenship is a fantastic bass player, the band’s heart. Drummer Patrick Hallahan has known James since they were kids. He’s a huge man, and a helluva drummer. At the end of the night his red shirt was soaked. Bo Koster handles keys, and Carl Broemel handles just about everything else, from scorching guitar to pedal steel to sax (memorably) on Dondante.

After opening the show with the first two songs from Circuital (the title cut evokes Peter Gabriel's first big hit, "Solsbury Hill"), featuring a flashy light show and a “We will rock you” attitude, the band launched into “Off the Record.”

Literally, I’m getting chills just recalling it , some 20-hours later. There was no doubt we were all just along for the ride after that. The power and energy from this show made me wonder how they do it. They’ve played some of these songs literally hundreds of times. How do they not get jaded? How do they not get bored?

There was none of that last night. They wanted it. They were going to have it.

After a straightforward version of “I’m Amazed” (by which point, so where the rest of us), they went into a personal favorite, “Gideon.”

Yes, there were tears.

It’s hard to single out highlights of this show. A lot of times you go to a show, and afterwards, you say “this, that and that other one” were the best. After this show, trying to select a best version would be like trying to pick a favorite orgasm. It implies that there was a bad one, and that isn’t the case.

After a typically blazing job on “It Beats 4 U” the band had its only challenge of the night: the lights blew. The stage descended into darkness during “Honest Man,” one of its older songs, and stayed that way until halfway through one of its newest, “Slow Slow Tune.” They never flinched. In fact, the band was so tight and so pro that it almost seemed as if they could have intentionally gone for the low-fi look to evoke the spare style that they came to notice bearing. It was believable. Had there not been techs scurrying frantically about, it was believable. I’m still not sure.

Because the high-voltage light show that totally fits the spacey vibe of Circuital works completely, and elevates the material even more. But it’s also a bit of a departure. I saw U2 when they were wore plaid and boots and their idea of showmanship was when Bono washed a hand-held spotlight across the audience. Now U2 shows cost millions to run. MMJ is not about light shows but a little more success means a little more stagemanship. I like it. The crowd did too.
This dual personality worked for the last two songs of the set before the encore when “Holding On To Black Metal” segued into “Mahgeeta.” The crowd stood, cheered, clapped nonstop and even launched into the chant usually held at Chiefs games. Only in Kansas City, the Paris of the Plains.

(Note: After “Slow Slow Tun”e the band did “Smoking from Shooting,” which absolutely crushed, followed by “Run Thru” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2.” They were all great, especially “Smoking”.)

The five-song encore started with “Dondante.” It’s a haunting, gripping song made even more so since I learned it is a nod to James’ friend Aaron Todovich. The two had a band before MMJ and parted ways. James became James and Todovich became a suicide in his mid-twenties. With this knowledge the version of the song last night was filled with portent; as it went on for close to 10 minutes, the lights and the playing veered off into a sort of madness that made you feel the pain of being lost, being sad and alone and being beyond help. It was heartbreaking, terrifying and glorious. Knowing what this song means to James and the band makes their ability to not only play it but give people a glimpse into that sort of raw human emotion is something I’ve never, ever come close to feeling at a concert. It almost makes you feel guilty to be a voyeur on that trip.

While the crowd was thus captured, MMJ brought us back up with a thrilling version of “Wordless Chorus” then “The Day is Coming” and “Anytime” before closing with “One Big Holiday.”

Read the lyrics to “Anytime.” James pointed to the crowd a few times during the song… and it answered how they could play “Dondante.” Because the song is about being true to yourself and fighting for what you believe in, which, hopefully… is yourself. He delivered the same message and exhortations to the crowd in "The Day is Coming." Everyone there believes in this band, but for a few moments, it was as if he believed in us. That's unusual to get that sort of response to a show. And another reason why fans of the Jacket feel like we know something others don't get.

Arcade Fire is a media darling right now. Good for them, but why isn't there the same amount of widespread love for MMJ? People are missing the boat.

At the end of the night, the band stood and responded to the roaring crowd. It seemed like KC had embraced them, and they signaled their appreciation back. James commented at two separate points about this, acknowledging thanks for the love they were being showered with, and saying upon returning for a 5-song encore that “I’m proud of you.”

It was an odd comment… proud of “us?” For what? For knowing how great a show we were seeing?

After the show, I posed a question: Rank the Jacket’s six studio releases. It was a trick used so that I could rank my choices. The band’s career-changing “Z” is a line in the sand for their development. The Beatles sounded very different after Sgt. Pepper than they did before. “Z” is like that for MMJ. Some fans posting in post-show forums this morning asked for more of the early stuff. But for me, “Z” is the Jacket’s sound. And “Circuital” – which accounted for six of the show’s 21 songs last night – right now is the next-best MMJ offering. That would put the strange “Evil Urges” on this side of the fence. Last night’s show had 15 of 21 songs from these last three releases. Just sayin’.

KC’s Uptown Theater, added to the National Record of Historic Places in 1979, first opened in 1928. Now mostly a concert venue, the Uptown has also held a wide variety of events, including political rallies. And according to the venue’s Web site, Bob Hope played as a young man. Also according to the venue, in the 30s it was the first to implement the “Fragratone” system that injected appropriate aromas into performances.

This system apparently still works, as there was some various aromas at play during last night’s concert.

The Uptown’s balcony offers cramped seating; there is additional seating below the balcony and standing room in front of the stage. A Kansas City Star reviewer estimated the crowd at near capacity of 1,800. Although the seats were a little cramped, and the venue was warm (a consistent reviewer complaint on Yelp), these relative inconveniences were offset by a few niceties:
1) Adjacent to the Uptown is a parking lot suitable for about 200 cars. It’s owned by the venue, and the parking is… (wait for it)… FREE. Yeah. Free parking directly next to a concert venue. This alone will bring me back to the Uptown.
2) Seating is first-come, first-served. We had no trouble finding a decent seat in the third row of the upper balcony. In fact, a pair of front-row seats sat unclaimed for a while. If you’re there early enough, you’ll get what you want. The line started forming by 4:30 p.m. and the doors opened about 6:45. It moved pretty quickly. If you’re at the venue by 6:30, an hour in this case before showtime, you’ll have no trouble.
3) A bottle of water was $3. On a blistering hot day, this is a little pricey but what do you expect? You can always refill the bottle from the tap in the bathroom sinks if you’re brave and/or cheap.
4) About those restrooms: A little cramped, but accessible and not stinky and no long lines.
5) We planned to eat some world-famous KC barbecue across the street from the Uptown at C. Withers. However, as we came in at 4:30 they told us they weren’t serving until 5 p.m. This although their listed hours were 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Disappointing. There are a few places in the area; we wound up at a Chinese place called Peking that featured an extremely eccentric female manager. Think “Soup Nazi” but with a thick Asian accent. Among the highlights: she barked at a to-go patron (who turned out to be a ticket scalper we saw later); and a man staking out a table for four informed her that they’d have a “baby” dining with them, to which the woman asked “How big a baby?” In my neighborhood that goes as a weird question. The food was nondescript cheap Chinese (my cashew chicken had about 6 cashews total), but passable. As in next time I think I will pass.
6) There are surely options nearby, but one caveat: mostly unfamiliar with KC, the mixed-race neighborhood seemed borderline dodgy. Nearby streets seemed to have beautifully restored old homes; others seemed to be crack-house worthy.

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