My Morning Jacket Rocks the Garden

21 Jun

Walker Art Center
By: Jeff
Photos by: Kyle Matteson

The announcement that My Morning Jacket was going to headline this year’s Rock the Garden was all I needed to hear to make this the first one I’d attend. I’d never seen MMJ live, but I’ve heard enough people sing the praises of their live show, and I knew this would be a great opportunity. Although I had to acknowledge that the early (neighborhood-friendly) schedule for RTG would dictate a set shorter than their typical show – and way south of their legendary 4-hour 2008 Bonnaroo set. I was also intrigued by Neko Case in the 2nd slot, having not seen her before.

Tapes ‘n Tapes opened the day in the rain, but they sounded great. Booker T. put on a typically solid blues show that we’ve come to expect from him – or any of the other handful of legendary Blues artists still going.

 

When Case took the stage at about 6:45, the crowd appeared pretty well settled in for the night, having finished their beer/food run(s), and surviving the worst of the rainy weather. Unfortunately, her set was underwhelming. A portion of the blame has to go to the volume of her set being awfully low overall, and maybe more importantly her vocals were tough to discern. For an artist that relies on the intelligence of the lyrics, and the quirkiness of her on-stage banter, low vocals can be a killer.

That said, what I could hear was gorgeous and I could have listened to her sing all day. Case had a very smooth interaction with her band, but her personality still came out. She threw out some of the most unorthodox comments, including:

1) Describing an idea for a contest – “People take ice cubes, rub them in their armpits to get them cold, and then take popsicles, pry them under their armpits and then see who can pull the stick out the fastest. But, the ice cube step is really important as your armpits would need to be really cold for it to work.” (I still have no idea exactly how this one got started.)

2) Case introduced “That Teenage Feeling” by calling it and/or themselves “festival killers”. She did, however, flash a double \m/ sign.

3) Case noticed and pointed out, a crane flying high above the crowd. She waved to it and said, “Hi, Pterodactyl freak!”

In the end, Case’s set reminded me how much I like her music, how much I love her individuality, and that I’d really, really like to see her at another, albeit more suitable, venue.

Case’s set finished up at about 7:45, giving the crowd 45 minutes to pack tighter together in the mud, and push closer to the front. The excitement was high as Philip Bither from the Walker Art Center and Mark Wheat from The Current took the stage to introduce MMJ. I did have a bit of a chuckle as Wheat whipped the crowd into a frenzy by ending the intro with, “prepare yourselves!” This was followed by house music from The Decemberists – “Down by the River”. A good song, no doubt, but hardly a great choice for a lead-in to MMJ.

Jim James and MMJ wasted no time in setting the standard for what was, as I’d been told, a defining performance clearly supporting their reputation as one of the best live bands going. The band took the stage promptly at 8:30, all dressed very sharply in coats and ties. James went even further donning a full length cape, long scarf, and furry white apres-ski boots. An odd choice given that it was a humid, hazy evening following a warm summer rain in Minneapolis, but James pulled it off.

James is a fantastic front man. He is clearly leading the group song in and song out. He switched guitars nearly every song (usually toweling off in the process). I lost count of how many different guitars he played in the 15 song set, but it was four within the first five songs for sure. The total guitars he played throughout the night was probably 7+.

I think this is partially what makes MMJ so awesome. Any band can play the hell out of their one guitar, through any number of jammy songs, but not many can pull off the technical proficiency that James and company do; while, at the same time making it seem simple. The opener “Victory Dance” had James donning a sound effect board on a strap around his neck, his synth work on “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Pt. 2’s” was exemplary, and the other guitarists were also switching out guitars all the time – guitar techs tuned them non-stop throughout the show before handing them back, just to swap out for the next one.

I didn’t know the guitar-hook in “I’m Amazed” is actually a back-and-forth between James and Carl Broemel. Even bassist Too-Tone Tommy switched guitars frequently, and one of his highlights was the violent grinding of the strings into the neck of his guitar at the end of “I’m Amazed” – to get just the right sound. James was doing his best bass player imitation when he slapped his guitar strings like a bass during “Smokin’ From Shootin’”. It was quite the display of guitar work.

They also proved to be masters of timing and flow. There was little to no stage banter. James only stopped twice – once to praise the Walker after the fourth song, and the other to call Minneapolis “a beautiful community you have here”. MMJ put together a perfectly paced show that masterfully weaved together their trademark rock anthems with slower ones. Songs 7 and 8 ,“Golden” and “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” respectively, provided a nice break after a stellar six songs during the first half hour of the set. MMJ then used the ultra-slow building “Outta My System” to build back up to launch into the second half of the set, starting with “I’m Amazed”.

From there on out it was a relentless hour to the end. “Holdin’ On To Black Metal” was so powerful on this night, James absolutely screamed the lyrics, and the band was playing with pedal to the metal. “Steam Engine” went on forever. The beginning of the song to the end seemed to bridge the gap between lightness and darkness, as dusk settled in.

James started the end of the set with a towel draped completely over his head, and needed only three songs to fill that last half hour. “Smokin’ From Shootin’”, “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2”, and finally, “One Big Holiday”. “One Big Holiday” is often cited as the best late-night TV music performance from MMJ’s 2006 appearance on Late Night with Conan. And for good reason, as it takes them all of 41 seconds to blow the roof off the studio. The song is the same live, and is arguably also one of the best concert closing songs that I can think of. I even noticed that Broemel’s guitar tech was grinning ear-to-ear during the song as he was packing up his stuff, nodding his head, and I could read his lips as he exclaimed, “YES!” The fact that I was doing the same on my first time seeing the song live, vs. his likely 100s of times, says everything. If you want to see how it’s done, go see My Morning Jacket – you’ll be glad you did.

My Morning Jacket Set List

Victory Dance
Circuital
Wordless Chorus
Off the Record
First Light
Gideon
Golden
Wonderful (The Way I Feel)
Outta My System
I’m Amazed
Holdin’ On To Black Metal
Steam Engine
Smokin’ From Shootin’
Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Pt. 2
One Big Holiday

Neko Case Set List

Things That Scare Me
Maybe Sparrow
People Got a Lot of Nerve
The Pharaos
Hold On, Hold On
Margaret vs. Pauline
?
Don’t Forget Me
Red Tide
That Teenage Feeling
This Tornado Loves You
Vengeance is Sleeping
Star Witness
Knock Loud

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