Monday, February 12, 2007

My Morning Jacket, Live

[written for the London Lite, late 2006]

‘Jamming’ is a justly-maligned practice in rock, too often the last refuge of self-indulgent musos running low on inspiration. Gentle Kentucky hairies My Morning Jacket, however, have raised ‘jamming’ to a sublime art, as evidenced by tonight’s triumphant set of anthemic rock and stargazing country, given a gloriously ragged edge by extended passages of ecstatic, emotive soloing.

Formed in a cosy shack on their old guitarist’s family farm in rural Shelbyville seven years ago, the group conjure a similar intimacy in hulking barns like the Astoria, their largest headlining show in the UK to date. Singer Jim James walked onstage cradling a plush toy woolly mammoth (bearing a striking likeness to the hirsute frontman, crooning behind a forest of beard and hair), singing the opening ‘Wordless Chorus’ to his furry chum. It’s a typically boyish gesture from James – and, as the song’s title suggests, his heavenly vocal can move even when simply cooing and sighing.

The group often win deserved comparison to Neil Young and his mercurial backing band, Crazy Horse – like Young, they’ve recorded fine studio albums, but the stage draws a mysterious something extra from them. The epic ‘Run Through’ broke down into a fierce, fiery session of guitar-abuse from James and guitarist Carl Broemel, hurling their leonine manes in unison with bassist ‘Two-Tone’ Tommy, like proper 70s stadium-rockers. ‘One Big Holiday’ showcased their gift for extended instrumental heroics, its blistering old-school guitar duels inspiring flocks of air-guitarists in the audience to riff along.

With their passion, their skill and their sense of romance, My Morning Jacket buff up the rock clichés so they thrill like new, even indulging that mostly deadly of rock bete noirs – cod-reggae – not once but twice (‘On The Record’ and ‘Phone Went West’, two joyous, summery gems with a lazy skank to their crunch). And when they drew a spectral hush from this capacity audience for the delicately psychedelic swoon of ‘Steam Engine’, James’s keening, tender vocals evoked a poignancy Chris Martin would kill for.

For all their heavy-riffing anthems, it was these quieter moments when My Morning Jacket shone brightest. ‘Deodante’ was a lament for a departed friend, sad and quizzical in mood, and adventurous in its shifts from bittersweet folk lilt to funereal blues, ghostly saxophone lending a Pink Floyd-esque air of melancholy. That same loss also inspired the giddily-upbeat ‘What A Wonderful Man He Was’, a Slade-esque stomper of exuberant remembrance.

For two hours they classic-rocked, as if soaring harmonies, high-drama guitar workouts and melodies that break your heart or make it soar never went out of fashion. And in such brilliantly able hands as My Morning Jacket, they never will. Long may they run.

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