Live: My Morning Jacket Build A Better Classic Rock At Madison Square Garden


My Morning Jacket w/Band of Horses
Madison Square Garden
Wednesday, December 14

Better than: The other bands on the Bonnaroo roots-jam circuit.

I sometimes imagine the young Kentucky rock fan who would one day name himself Jim James surfing the internet in the late ’90s (we called it surfing back then), searching for some Allman Brothers guitar tabs, and stumbling upon a message board debate about the perils of rockism and boomer nostalgia and dinosaurs who won’t let the ’70s go. I imagine James absorbing the ideas about not making “rock” the default genre idea, prejudices about pop and dance music and closed minds and closed ears. (You know the drill.) I imagine him nodding, taking it all in and deciding that they were all good points—but realizing that he still really liked guitar solos. The solution? He would use these ideas to build a better classic rock. This is a completely imaginary scenario, but it has worked out pretty well for him.

My Morning Jacket’s performance at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday revealed a band that was open-minded sonically while possessing a primary appeal of delivering head-banging-inspiring Neil Young and Zeppelin riffs. The show began with the opener from current album Circuital, the lurching, insistent “Victory Dance,” during which James skipped around the stage and bellowed war chants into the microphone. From there they moved through to “It Beats 4 U,” with its fill and keyboard line that nods to trip-hop; brought out a horn section for the Motown homage “Dondante”; and delivered a confident run through of the odd-disco lurch “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt.2,” which sounded like arena-sized !!! with a crunchier low-end. And just to ram the “we can like it all” point home, they brought on long-time Gil Scott-Heron sideman Brian Jackson for an impassioned cover of the late poet’s anthem “The Bottle.”

My Morning Jacket have a singular place in modern music culture. They have all the trappings of mainstream success one could imagine: Gigs at Madison Square Garden; Saturday Night Live performances; appearances on TV shows; headlining festival gigs; magazine covers. They do all this with minimal MTV or radio presence; instead, they’ve reached their heights by becoming one of the best live bands of the past decade.

But unlike those bands from the jam circuit that focus on achieving an onstage feeling that will keep people come back for years, My Morning Jacket also focus on making memorable songs and albums that work on their own accord—an idea much rarer in that field than one might think. (I mean, even Phish fans don’t like Phish albums.) And while the band is quite associated with that three-letter word, their jamming is usually limited to extending the bridges and outros. My Morning Jacket’s success has freed them up to follow their muse wherever it may lead and to glom whatever they like on to their folk-arena rock hybrid, even though their fans would probably be fine if they kept repeating It Still Moves. (They would certainly prefer that to any more Primus homages like “Highly Suspicious.”) Which is all well and good; long may they roam.

That said, sometimes guitar-god solos don’t need any extra accoutrements, and for all their attempts to remold classic rock, “One Big Holiday” is still the best CCR/Allman/Zeppelin song of the past decade—as well as a hell of a way to cap of a night.

Critical bias: This week’s roster of shows: My Morning Jacket, the National, the Hold Steady. I listen to all kinds of stuff. It’s just that sort of week.

Overheard: “Oh shit, this is the best.”—A person behind me accurately describing “One Big Holiday.”

Random notebook dump: Didn’t make it in time for Band Of Horses, but Ben Bridwell sounded lovely when dueting with James on “Wonderful” and the encore performance of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”