My Morning Jacket @ Stage AE, 8/10/11 – Concert Review

Published On August 17, 2011 | By Bonus Chopper | Music

While I’m not the biggest My Morning Jacket fan in the world, I certainly obsessed over three out of their first four studio releases (Tennessee Fire, It Still Moves and the superlative Z) with music nerd geekdom in spades. In fact, one of my favorite early YouTube stand bys was a brilliant, haunting acoustic rendition of “I Think I’m Going to Hell” with Jim James’ sorrowfully howling on a French (?) subway platform in the dead of winter. That video has since been scrubbed from the interwebs, but James’ voice and songwriting capabilities showcased in that little take away show were permanently burned into my memory.

Seeing My Morning Jacket perform live a week ago on Stage AE‘s unrivaled outdoor stage, I was reminded of that now lost YouTube clip and the passionate heft it imparted on me. James is still the soft spoken, bearded folkie I remember warning “devils and demons are coming/lovers and children beware” all those years ago, but he now possesses an earthly weight in his stage presence. He now plays the role of a warm, quasi-Dionysian marauder, constantly engaging the fevered crowd while leading the MMJ lineup (playing in Swiss-watch-like synchronicity) through a robust back catalog that spans practically the past decade.

Granted, a robust catalog means some misses here and there (for me, its the entirety of 2009’s Evil Urges), but the show front to back was a delight, and the audience was treated with arguably the nicest evening Pittsburgh has seen in early August in quite some time. The sky was clear, the moon was out, and there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Stage AE’s outdoor stage lived up to all the expectations I heaped on it from my experiences indoors, and proved to be the best outdoor music venue in the city by a sizable margin.

The set opened with the proggy, 1-2 punch of Circuital‘s opening couplet “Victory Dance” and the title cut. It didn’t feel like a My Morning Jacket show until the down home guitars kick in at the two minute mark of “Circuital,” cuing up enough country twang to make you forget “Victory Dance” is driven primarily by a keyboard riff. “I’m Amazed,” arguably the best cut off Evil Urges, is sandwiched between two of Z’s standouts: the semi-crossover, reggae infused  hit “Off The Record” and the gorgeous “Gideon.” Z closer “Dondante” emerges as the set’s centerpiece, building brilliantly to the eight-minute-plus track’s slow burn climax and kicking off a good ten minutes of appreciated jamming, until a slightly embarrassing sax solo closes the song down.

“Touch Me I’m Going to Scream pt 2” got its due, with Jame’s playing the goofy synth line, and almost lulled the audience to sleep in the meantime. Thank god the sweetly easy going It Still Moves  standout “Mahgeeta” closed the set and allowed the audience to look around and really appreciate the picturesque evening and managed to provide the perfect amount of momentum heading into the encore.

And honestly, what an encore it was. Jim James invited tour opener Neko Case out for a beautiful duet of Kenny Rodgers and Dolly Parton’s “Island in the Stream,” and it basically brought the house down. Both parties seemed to genuinely enjoy the opportunity to cover a 70’s soft rock/country staple, laughing and harmonizing perfectly, while the crowd swayed back and forth, seemingly without a care in the world. It was inevitable “One Big Holiday” would be the end all closer, and it didn’t disappoint. The song itself is basically a showcase of what MMJ does best: stomping, classic rock guitar heroics imbued with a forward thinking indie rock sensibility, and of course, putting James’ soaring vocals front and center of the whole damn thing.

The night didn’t have a lot of highs and lows, but simply proved to be one of the most pleasurable summer concerts I have seen in the last few years. Stage AE lived up to the hype and MMJ played the show everyone wanted to hear. Even though I spent around 700 words analyzing the experience, all I can really say is I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.

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