A Bonnaroo Declaration:
Let it be known that between the hours of 12:00 a.m. and 3:45 a.m. on Saturday, June 14th that My Morning Jacket began their ascent from festival phenom to the pantheon of rock-n-roll superstardom.
Going into this year’s Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival there was an undeniable feeling that My Morning Jacket’s late night appearance on Which Stage would be a pivotal and potentially monumental performance for the band. With a critically acclaimed record hitting the streets earlier in the week that all but stylistically disregards MMJ’s previous albums and an extensive tour on the horizon of rather large venues throughout Europe & the U.S. forthcoming this summer and fall, excitement was aplenty on the 700-Acre farm. After Friday night’s four-hour extravaganza that primarily focused on material from the new Evil Urges record and 2005’s Z and also included covers of Bobby Womack, Funkadelic, Velvet Underground, Erykah Badu, Motley Crue, I have come to expect the unexpected when it comes to the Jacket.
As strangely repetitive and soothing sitar music played shortly before the stroke of midnight the Tennessee skies opened up and a steady rain began to fall. Unbothered and anxious, the great majority of folks in the large crowd knew it would be well worth sticking it out. MMJ has grown stylistically and in popularity each time they have appeared at the festival and in many ways serve as the Bonnaroo mascot having played almost every kind of set a band can play besides the headlining slot in their five years appearing in Manchester. With Evil Urges in the live rotation, each show is like a festival in itself, as the band shows their flexibility covering the genres of rock, country, soul/folk, funk, dance and metal each night. With some jazzy house music playing, the band took the stage and segued out of it with the title track off their new album Evil Urges and quickly jolted the crowd into a euphoric state that would persist the rest of the night. Following “Evil Urges” with the dubbed out fan favorite “Off The Record” was an excellent follow-up as the rain intensified. A Vermont-style glow stick war unfolded at the perfect moment during the climactic "Come Onnnnnnnnnnnnn" part of "Gideon", giving fans a chance to relive the festival’s early jam band roots. The cover heavy set was off-and-running when the band invited Flecktone Jeff Coffin and the Nashville/Louisville Horns section and took turns singing verses of Sly & The Family Stone's appropriate "Hot Fun in the Summertime". Jim James was a dramatically intense leader on this rain-soaked night reeling off epic renditions of songs that seemed to oscillate in intensity in perfect sync with the ongoing rain storm. A common sentiment I heard the following day was something along the lines of “they even had control over the rain!” The twisted metal-psych Prince style “peanut butter pudding surprise” rocker otherwise known as “Highly Suspicious” would follow and exceeded expectations in the live setting. Two of the band’s poppier tunes “What A Wonderful Man” and “I’m Amazed” saw an unusual amount of stage presence from typically subdued keyboardist Bo Koster who looked to be enjoying himself like never before. Technical problems seemed to affect everyone in the band at one point in the show but ultimately did not faze the band as they continued to adapt and churn out new covers and fan favorites. Jim James’ omnichord, a electronic MIDI style instrument that the bandleader has brought to prominence, was sadly a casualty of the night, but James filled the void with vocal improvisation where the instruments’ sound was voided.
As much fun as it is to see the band display an head banging intensity during extended dualing guitar solos, it is perhaps even more mind-bending to hear Jim James's reverb-drenched and downright angelic voice wash over the masses during one of the eerily slow jams like "Golden" and the brand new, and sonically astonishing R & B tune "Thank You Too". The second half of the first set featured an unbelievable run of heavy rockers including a blistering "Lay Low" from Z, a hilarious rendition of Funkadelic's "Hit it and Quit it", and a cover of Erykah Badu's mid-90s hit "Tyrone". Finally the band setting sail on a larger-than-life "Steam Engine" which seems to encapsulate the band's many styles as it weaves through it’s many phases. “Steam Engine” gave the band’s drummer Patrick Hallahan a chance to showcase his incredible talent and the band/crew a badly needed chance to dry off equipment as he meshed hard rock Bonham-style drumming with psychedelic rhythms pummeling through a “Moby Dick” style drum solo. “Anytime", "Aluminum Park (the only song on Evil Urges that could have fit on the band's 2005 release Z)", the raucous "Easy Morning Rebel", and "Dancefloors" established this set as unstoppable, and the following song would serve as the musical event of the weekend (maybe a lifetime for a handful of diehards) as guitar legend Kirk Hammett of Metallica shredded alongside Jim James and Carl Broeml during the band's breakthrough tune "One Big Holiday". Hammett’s frenetic speed metal complemented James and Broeml’s style nicely and the “holy s*&^s” were aplenty in the crowd. Of the ten or so energetic overdrive guitar solo freak outs of the night this was the most memorable with James running around on his own and getting in on the action with Broeml, bassist Two-Tone Tommy and Hammett from time to time. After a nearly two-hour first set the band exited stage right for a short break to give the crew a chance to dry off the stage and get everything back in working order. If the show would've ended right then and there it would have stood out as perhaps one of the best shows of the weekend. Amazingly, the rain subsided for the duration of the short set break giving fans a chance to dry off a little and gush over what they had just seen.
Sure enough, as soon as MMJ took the stage again, a heavy downpour started that would continue for the remainder of the show. The Kentucky quintet came out even more energized than before and proved there was still plenty left in the tank with more tricks up their sleeve as Jim James conjured up his inner James Brown striking up the horn section for a trio of funk covers including Brown's "Cold Sweat", Kool & The Gang's "Get Down On It" and Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street". James performed like a Bonnaroo master of ceremonies throughout the second set flying around the stage sporting some newfound dance moves and feeding off the intensity of drum extraordinare Patrick Hallahan's spot-on drum work. “Wordless Chorus”, "Mahgeetah" and "Phone Went West" would follow and it was funny to see three get songs almost get lost amidst surprising covers. If the malady described in “Phone Went West” was hypothermia and rainy night blues, then Jim James was the doctor:
Is there a doctor in the house tonite?
If there’s a wrong, he could make it right.
A fantastic take on Velvet Underground’s “Oh, Sweet Nuthin’” followed and surprised Jacket faithful all had wide-eyed smiles that went for days knowing that this was a first-time treat. The mellow slow tune “Librarian” segued perfectly into “Dondante” while an eerie stillness came over the crowd as a “golden rain (as James described it)” fell and JJ’s lonesome ghostly voice softly belted out the opening verse of Dondante. Like many of MMJ’s greatest songs, Dondante slowly builds to an extended explosion of syncopated psychedelic euphoria and is brought on by a moment of vocal exposition that only James could do justice to. After several minutes of earth-shattering guitar jamming and gut busting drum fills, the song returns to its original delicate state as multi-instrumentalist Carl Broeml plays an ominous and tonally lustrous saxophone outro of “Floydish” proportions. The hefty slow motion guitar journey known as “Run Thru” came next and a feeling that the show might carry historical significance started to emanate through the crowd. “Smoking from Shootin” aptly came next and had James asking “Have you had enough excitement now more than you ever did” and following up with show closer TOUCH ME Part 2 that had James exclaiming: “Oh! this feeling it is wonderful! Don't you ever turn it off!”. To cap off the monstrous four-hour set the band did a final cover of Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home” and invited a visibly inebriated Zach Galifinakis (Out Cold, Sarah Silverman Show) dressed as Little Orphan Annie to sing along.
At last the journey through rain and song had ended and the buzz from the show still hasn’t worn off . It is always special to watch a band at the peak of the career and right now it seems MMJ has reached the rarefied territory of operating in a space where there are no boundaries to what they can achieve musically. Their ears are as big as the enormous venues they are beginning to regularly fill with a newfound affecttion and respect for R & B, Funk, and Soul that didn’t show itself in previous LPs. Their appeal is genre-defying and seemingly universal reaching metal-loving freaks, jam band hippies, and the oftentimes fickle indie rock blogosphere. With a New Years Eve performance at Madison Square Garden and an exponentially growing fan base, the sky is the limit for this band that might just become the biggest non-mainstream crossover rock act since…?