When My Morning Jacket play live, they tend to come off as an elemental force. They play three hours, paradoxically leaving you wanting more and leaving you absolutely spent. MMJ gives everything live, but also requires a lot of you, pulling you through blissed-out calms into twisting, peaking jams and one epically emotive chorus after another. They’re live shows become a religious experience, where fans track recordings of each concert, or make pilgrimages cross-country to see MMJ’s marathon sets at Bonnaroo, or at Madison Square Garden, or both. A rare feat.
New York City may not be getting MMJ’s big New Year’s Eve show this year, but we–or, at least, Port Chester–get the lead up, a three night run at the Capitol Theatre during which the band is supposedly not going to play a single song twice. This comes on the end of nearly a year and a half of MMJ touring on and off in support of their 2011 album Circuital, a tour where the band employed a “spontaneous curation” approach, fielding forum posts and tweets from fans to help select some songs for each night’s set. Ever since MMJ’s triumphant five night run at the midtown venue Terminal 5 in 2010–during which the band played each of their albums in their entirety, as well as pretty much all of their b-sides and a bizarre array of covers–the band has been unpredictable live. After retreading through their back catalog, songs that had previously been unheard for a decade are being played once more, and the spontaneous curation system seems to encourage MMJ to continue airing deep cuts and surprising covers.
This three night run feels like an occasion, one where we might get treated to some particularly unique moments from a band that’s already known for surprises. All bets are off, really. MMJ has been known to cover anyone from Lionel Richie, to the Clash, to Black Sabbath, to Bob Dylan, to Funkadelic, to the Rolling Stones. They’ll bring you to your knees, near tears, while Jim James is sporting a cape and singing next to a giant stuffed bear. But here are a few covers we hope to hear, and a few other things that might just happen the next few nights.
Five Covers We Hope They Play
“How the Gods Kill”
I once saw MMJ open an encore with this cover, and all the remnants of my teenage self pretty much went nuts over Jim James & co. covering, of all things, something by the epic blues-metal outfit of former Misfits frontman Glenn Danzig. While we all knew MMJ could match the heaviness of Danzig’s chorus whenever they felt like it, this cover showed off a slightly different side of James’ voice, something darker and more seductive that he’d do well to explore more often. As far as MMJ covers go, this one’s a bit of a rarity, and a three night run with no repeats seems a good time to bring it back.
The Velvet Underground
“Oh! Sweet Nuthin'”
“Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” is the immaculate last song from the Velvet Underground’s swan song, Loaded. MMJ have played it quite a bit over the years, particularly when they were touring for Z and Evil Urges. They bring a bit of weathered Southern grandeur to it, punctuating the song with climactic solo sections that make it sound like it originally came after “Steam Engine” on MMJ’s own It Still Moves rather than after “Train Round the Bend” on Loaded. It’s one of the more gorgeous covers MMJ do.
“Fleeing Is Believing”
OK, this one is somewhat random, and there’s no real justification for assuming that there’s any chance in hell MMJ would cover it. It’s a lesser known song from an EP from a semi-known band that released their first album, a scuzzy garage rock thing called The Feeling, in November. It’s not like Jim James has been doing interviews talking about how much he loves Naomi Punk (to my knowledge, at least). But the first time I heard this song it reminded me of a noisier, dirtier version of the earlier MMJ material. Take away the reverb blankets of The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn, and they’d probably sound comparably ragged to “Fleeing is Believing.” In fact, when the more muscular current version of MMJ play old tracks like “It’s About Twilight Now” or “Honest Man” they get grungy like Naomi Punk here. Just imagine James wailing away at those last few choruses.
“Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)”
Back in ’01, right when George Harrison died, Jim James recorded this set of solo demos of six covers both from Harrison’s solo career and Beatles years. It wasn’t released until much later, in ’09, under James’ solo moniker Yim Yames. As a weird solo one-off, these covers haven’t really made their way into MMJ’s sets, aside from an occasional performance of “Isn’t It a Pity.” What is actually a pity is that they’ve never taken on the “Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll).” While most of the Yim Yames EP is interesting in a kind of novelty way, this is one moment where a young James possibly tops Harrison. The sparse instrumentation coupled with James’ perennially reverb-drenched vocals give the cover this devastating, haunting quality, and it’d sound incredible in the Capitol Theatre.
For all of My Morning Jacket’s schizophrenia when it comes to covers, there have been a handful that have become the band’s own standards, eliciting fervor akin to some of the band’s own most beloved songs. Sometimes these more common covers make more sense within the sonic framework of MMJ’s sounds, like when they do the Band’s “It Makes No Difference”; sometimes it’s Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone,” a cover which, dating back to their early alt-country days, was way out of left field, even if it seems less so now after some of the psychedelic soul stylings of Evil Urges and Circuital. But reigning supreme over all of the “classic” MMJ covers is, inarguably, “Rocket Man,” the Elton John tune which is normally kind of fodder for things like American Idol and bar bands. MMJ’s version is a beautifully elegiac country-tinged version, with Carl Broemel’s lap steel guitar weaving in and out like tragic whale songs until James belts out the chorus with everyone–because of course it’s everyone–pouring it out with him. This is one of those instances where the fanbase has long since forgotten the song’s by someone else.
Five My Morning Jacket-ish Things We Hope to See Happen in Port Chester
(Super) Deep Cuts
As mentioned, after MMJ went back and re-learned everything for the Terminal 5 shows, they thankfully didn’t just abandon all the recently unearthed old material. But while some lesser known songs pop up now and then, there are still some real hidden gems the band could reincorporate into their setlist. “Evelyn Is Not Real” and “Strangulation!” make appearances, but Port Chester would be a cool time to bring out non-album tracks like “Chills” or “How Could I Know.” One of the best resurrected old songs is “It’s About Twilight Now”, off of The Tennessee Fire, a foreboding Southern rocker that has morphed into something much heavier and frenzied when the band play it now. Perhaps we’ll also hear something from Jim James’ forthcoming solo album. Though it’s less likely, there is some precedent, as they semi-regularly played guitarist Carl Broemel’s “Carried Away” for awhile.
MMJ is no stranger to having friends join them onstage, whether it’s openers like Shabazz Palaces, sometimes collaborators like M. Ward (who was in Monsters of Folk with James), or former band members like Johnny Quaid, who occasionally shows up and reprises his role as guitarist on iconic songs from At Dawn or It Still Moves. MMJ has a different opener each night in Port Chester. Members of Deer Tick could come out and jam. Perhaps most exciting is afrobeat group Antibalas opening on the second night. They could bring out some horn players for the wild, bizarre funk of the Circuital track “Holdin’ On to Black Metal”, or for the unease of the rare “How Do You Know.”
Jim James Saying Something Mystical And/Or Batshit
Check 1:00-1:50 in that video. Jim James says really strange things in concert. I saw them in 2008 at Radio City Music Hall around the release of Evil Urges, and James marveled about playing the same stage that he had once hosted Aretha Franklin. Then he described a pre-show ritual in which he pretends he’s a cotton candy machine and “opens up the top of his head and lets all the bad shit out, and that’s the cotton candy,” and then he just lets the good things back in.
On the third Terminal 5 night, the one where they played It Still Moves, James took a rare break in the action to thank us all for coming out for their little celebration/experiment. Then he explained that none of us were really there right then. We were all actually back home, logged onto our computers, sharing in a virtual reality experience. Then he thanked us for logging on with him tonight. And this guy says he doesn’t smoke much weed.
James will most likely say something like this. If not, rest assured, he’ll still wear a cape at some point.
There was a time in My Morning Jacket’s career where you knew you would hear all of their epics on one show. One 7-10 minute, multi-part exorcism after the next, each seemingly more crushing than the last. There were “Run Thru,” “Lay Low,” “Dondante,” “Steam Engine,” “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2”, and then there was the second level, the songs that weren’t super long or epic on record necessarily, but had grown into live events: “Off the Record”, “Victory Dance”, Mahgeetah,” and, of course, “One Big Holiday.” But when you have a catalog this stacked with songs that should be the major focal points of a show, you can’t really keep playing them all every single night, and suddenly you could go to a MMJ show and experience the previously unimaginable situation of leaving a show without hearing “Run Thru.” The good news is that three nights with no repeats means we can pretty much rest assured we’ll hear them all in Port Chester. There will probably even be room for the less common epics like “Rollin’ Back,” “I Will Sing You Songs,” “Strangulation,” “Honest Man,” and “Cobra.”
The Just Plain Bizarre
Well, you could say it’s bizarre enough that MMJ plays “Careless Whisper” every now and then. There’s usually a bit of quirkiness at a MMJ show, this is a given. James likes music to be fun, you know? But easily the strangest thing I’ve seen at a concert was when, two-thirds through “Careless Whisper,” James drawled on about how George Michael was chanting “ba-ba, ba-na-nas, na-nas” (he’s not) because he really cared about health and potassium and such. Which is one thing. But then James leads the audience in chanting about bananas as he and the band start throwing bananas into the crowd. I thought this was a one-off stunt to close the Z night of the 2010 Terminal 5 run. But, uh, here they are doing it again in Kentucky this year, with a guy dressed as some old imperial soldier or something helping out.
A My Morning Jacket show can take a lot of you physically and emotionally. Sometimes you need a bit of levity.