Download My Morning Jacket’s entire New Year’s Eve show here.
My Morning Jacket
Madison Square Garden
December 31, 2008
So My Morning Jacket isn’t the new Grateful Dead. That was Phish. Except that Phish wasn’t half as good as the Grateful Dead and only had about half a dozen great songs (“Wolfman’s Brother,” “Bouncing ‘Round the Room,” “Fee,” and you have three others to fill in here, Phish phanatics. But Phish did sustain the Dead’s lysergic lineage of giving liberal arts majors a common place to use their parents’ money to wreck their brain cells, a place where Muthuselean guitar solos lasted long enough to memorize of the entire Torah in ancient Aramaic. It was a pretty fair trade, and most ersatz 4th Estatesmen hated Phish, like the Dead, so much that when they finally went belly-up five years ago, no one other than the gray-beards at Rolling Stone gave a fuck other than those offering up requisite lame jokes about patchouli, Birkenstocks, and hackie-sacks.
What they forget is that Phish, MMJ, the Dead, and their less original but perfectly serviceable peers like Widespread Panic, Tea Leaf Green, and Government Mule fill an important void. Namely that by their overt goofiness, refreshing lack of self-seriousness, and breathtaking musical chops, they channel the oft-ignored earth lesson of rock and roll: this shit is supposed to be fun. That’s what Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, et.al understood, and what your favorite mustachioed Williamsburg-residing, Tyrolean-hatted, leather-jacketed trust fund babies usually forget, despite their Sarah Lawrence degrees and spontaneously generated Independent Croatian Ethnography Film Aesthetics majors.
Not to say that My Morning Jacket is necessarily better than Crystal Castles, or Crystal Stilts, or Crystal Antlers, or Billy Crystal — that’s not the point. I’m just trying to explain why I flew all the way across the country from my sun-scarred home base of Los Angeles to attend My Morning Jacket’s New Year’s Eve Show at Madison Square Garden, and why the person sitting next to me flew in from Oakland, and why when Jim James asked the masses early on into the band’s three-plus hour set how many of them were from out of state, the place degenerated into a deafening din. Like the Dead, My Morning Jacket are that sort of live band — the “you never know what kind of show you’re going to get” type that inspires cross-country treks in search of transcendence from both the spectacle and the drug vultures skulking around the perimeter of Madison Square Garden mewling “Molly, doses, rolls.” (By chance, if you’re reading this, Molly-Doses-Roll man, I can be reached at passionweiss[nospam]gmail.com. I’m sorry I didn’t take you up on your offer the other night; I was working and didn’t think my editor would cotton to the four-word review, “I saw God, maaannn.”)
Unfortunately, the lack of psychedelics — coupled with Madison Square’s sterilized, barn-like Babbitry — meant that the baby Jesus didn’t transmogrify out of the twin owl banners that MMJ had arranged above the stage. Oh well. But in spite of the $9 thimbles of Jack Daniel’s on the rocks and the arena’s inherent impersonality and stratifying set-up, My Morning Jacket staked their claim as one of the few great rock bands left. Jim James, whose voice levitated like Dominique Wilkins circa ’87, donned a cape, a black suit, a tie, and a beanie to commence Curtis Mayfield’s classic “Move On Up.” Backed by a four-piece horn section and his fellow band-mates — themselves magisterially resplendent in formal ware — MMJ rendered the soul staple with a loose, exuberant grace, James effortlessly matching Mayfield’s seemingly inimitable falsetto. At that moment, even the most Scrooge-like cynic would’ve been hard-pressed not to have been staggered by the collective euphoria radiating inside the cavernous space.
Clad in all sorts of hideous get-ups — from sequined silver hats and gaudy 2009 glasses to top hats and Dumb & Dumber tuxes — people began dancing in the aisles and didn’t stop until the intermission two hours later. Pink-and-green glow sticks hurtled through the air as though the Jacketheads had mistaken their men for Sasha or Digweed. Pure pandemonium. No bullshit scene-mugging, no arch poses, just a bunch of disparate individuals serried together for the purpose of ringing in the New Year with their favorite band. They played 22 songs in the first set alone, with the set list touching upon everything from the desolation dub of “Phone Went West,” off of their second album, At Dawn, and the space-disco sing-a-long “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2,” the finest song from Evil Urges, to covers of Charles Wright’s “Express Yourself,” Dion’s “The Wanderer,” and Marvin Gaye’s “You’re All That I Need.” The only thing that could’ve improved the situation would’ve been if they’d enlisted Method Man to flow over his flip of the latter. Instead, we got Will Johnson of Centromatic and Nicole Atkins, who were fine, but this is New York City.
After a pre-midnight intermission featuring clips of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a grainy, black & white 10, 9, 8….countdown flickered on the big screen and, as the ball dropped in Times Square a few blocks away, inside the Garden a blizzard of confetti and white balloons cluttered all sightlines, the sounds of Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” blaring over the loudspeakers. When vision was restored, the band was in mid-cover, clad in all-white suits and top hats like they’d been invited to a Puff Daddy party in the Hamptons. From there, they catapulted into “Get Down on It,” followed by the face-melting, glow-in-the-dark psych of “Wordless Chorus.”
Even “Highly Suspicious,” oft-maligned as Evil Urges‘s most un-listenable track, seemed to fit within the confines of the hammy and histrionic New Year’s Eve camp, with Jim James whipping his corkscrew mane in hair-metal head bangs, guitarist Carl Broemel and bassist Two Tone Tommy darting back and forth across the stage, and drummer Patrick Hallahan banging the skins with cave creature ferocity. Other back-half covers included James Brown’s “Cold Sweat,” Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” and Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’s “Islands in the Stream,” perhaps best-known to the under-40 set as the sample source for Pras & ODB’s “Ghetto Superstar.” What separated these renditions from similar attempts by their peers (beyond superior musicianship and James’s seraphic voice) was the absence of irony. They weren’t performing these songs solely to elicit an “I know that” chuckle, or even to get people dancing (which was surely part of the reason); they did them out of sincere love of the tunes and to pay tribute to their idols.
By the time they vaulted into guitar-workout finale “One Big Holiday,” its titular significance was unmistakable. As James himself said at one point during the show, “Isn’t it weird and amazing to be here, alive and together in the primes of our lives, during the last moments of 2008 and the first of 2009? It’s something we’ll always remember.” Truer words are rarely uttered. So ignore any arbitrary classifications of My Morning Jacket as indie band, jam band, the next Dead, or whatever dime-store designation some writer tries to ascribe to them…at least until 2042, when some lubberly lemming inevitably tries to tell you about this amazing new band who is “totally the next My Morning Jacket.” — Jeff Weiss