(This review originally appeared in edited form on Spin.com, Monday, 4/22/10)
My Morning Jacket have a reputation as one of the best live bands around, and their tour-opening performance at the Alabama Theater in Birmingham was another notch in their belt of great, high-energy concerts.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band kicked off the evening in Big Eazsy style. While the pairing of the legendary New Orleans-based group with My Morning Jacket seems odd at first glance, they were an excellent warm-up act, well-received by the audience. Their New Orleans-inflected jazz felt great, and the surprise appearance by Jim James for Louisiana Fairytale and St. James Infirmary (from the recent Preservation Hall Benefit album) got the crowd on their feet.
The Alabama Theater is an historic site in the heart of Birmingham, and a wonderfully intimate venue for live music – for Preservation Hall Jazz Band, perhaps second only to their eponymous home. Given My Morning Jacket’s popularity, it was a surprise to see that they hadn’t chosen a larger venue (the Alabama only seats 2,200). However, seeing both acts in an intimate and glitzy venue was a pleasant bonus, giving the evening a feeling of event status instead of just another rock-and-roll show.
And what a show it was. From the opening notes of One Big Holiday, the lights pulsing to the opening riff, the band radiated energy and intensity. For over two hours, they played a representative selection from their catalog. Every song seemed to be what the crowd was ready to hear, from the rocking Off the Record and Touch Me I’m Going To Scream to the more laid-back Thank You Too.
Frontman Jim James led the five-piece frenetically through the night. His vocals ranged from sweet to soaring (an impressive performance especially from a man who once cited Kermit the Frog as an influence), and his stage presence was mesmerizing. After joining Preservation Hall in a respectful coat and tie, he changed to something a bit more old-west, complete with gun belt. He definitely brought an outlaw feel to the stage, even punctuating a few songs with toy guns and a Dracula-esque cape.
James’ visual performance was matched (if not exceeded) by Patrick Hallahan’s mad-scientist-meets-John-Bonham drumming. Resembling the Muppet Animal at times, his crazy hair and flailing arms belied a solid unbroken rhythm performance. He and bassist “Two-Tone Tommy” Blankenship laid down a foundational groove and made it look both interesting and frighteningly easy.
And then there was the music –the intricately tight rhythm section provided a brilliant contrast to the lead guitar work of both James and guitarist Carl Broemel. Where the drums and bass were in the pocket and anchored, the guitars were all over the place, equal parts anxious riffing and accurate, intricate melody. Bo Koster was slightly buried in the mix, but when audible, his keyboard work tied everything together with a nice thread of atmosphere.
The night was mostly filled with a harder, rocking feel, though the band exhibited an impressive ability to put together a cohesive, well-timed and arranged setlist. The ebb and flow of the song sequence was near-perfect; it never felt as though the evening was dragging or getting too tiring. Of particular note were the dusty blues of Golden, the high-energy encore opener Wordless Chorus (and the rest of the encore, in which the Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined MMJ onstage for five songs), and the fifteen-minute-long space-groove roller coaster of Dondante, complete with an extended saxophone break from Broemel that took the song to an entirely unexpected level.
This tour offers a unique blend of sounds and atmospheres, all falling under the umbrella of excellent, infectious music. If you can attend one of the upcoming dates on this tour and not find yourself dancing raucously at least once (if not more), then there’s something wrong with your heart and soul.
- One Big Holiday
- The Way That He Sings
- Off the Record
- It Beats 4 U
- Lay Low
- Losin’ Yo Head (Monsters of Folk)
- I’m Amazed
- Friends Again
- Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. I
- Thank You Too!
- Smokin’ from Shootin’
- Run Thru
- Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt II
- Wordless Chorus
- Evil Urges (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
- Highly Suspicious (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
- Move On Up (Curtis Mayfield) (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
- Mother-in-Law (Herman’s Hermits) (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)
- Carnival Time (Al Johnson) (w/ Preservation Hall Jazz Band)