On Sunday night, May 12, Jim James floated onto the Fillmore stage looking like he had just been electrocuted. His mess of hair and beard frizzed wildly in every direction and his crazy-eyed stare poured into each fan in the front row, one by one, as he reached out to touch their fingertips – and then bowed to the crowd in Namaste. His humble entrance was endearing, and kind of hilarious. His wide-eyed stare got comically creepy after piercing my soul for a few seconds too long and about two feet away from my face, but it was obvious he appreciated the audience contact as he sauntered back and forth across the stage and sang into the crowd.
After penning six respectable studio albums with his claim to fame My Morning Jacket, a one-LP stint with stellar supergroup Monsters of Folk, and two cover albums (of George Harrison and Woody Guthrie, respectively) under the pseudonym Yim Yames, James released a solo album of original tracks, Regions of Light and Sound of God, in February of this year. Incorporating his saxophone skills and a four-piece live band to back him up, the new album is much more jazz-influenced and ostentatious than his folky past, though his Louisville southern twang remains.
James opened Sunday’s set with the first track from said LP, “State of the Art (A. E. I. O. U.)”, and staggered through the majority of the album with a somewhat manic rock star swagger. The bluesy “Actress” and “All is Forgiven” stood out while the artist flailed around stage, and the sentimentally cosmic lyrics of “A New Life” (“there’s more stardust when you’re near”) made the track one of my favorites. Throughout the two-hour set, the artist traded off between his Flying V (which otherwise sat locked onto a stand), an acoustic guitar, a brassy saxophone, and he went hands-free to belt in his notorious falsetto. He’d take breaks between songs to acknowledge the golden bear statue enshrined on the amp behind him and did an spirited praise dance (or something) with it. This, combined with the Namaste greeting, made his set seem like some ritualistic offering to the gods of rock and roll. Strange, but I can dig it.
It was apparent James was having tons of fun with his solo effort’s new direction. The tracks from Regions were clearly the best of the show, and even surpassed the Monsters of Folk songs he closed the night with – though the lack of M. Ward and Conor Oberst/Mike Mogis (of Bright Eyes) on stage surely had something to do with that. The only criticism I have of James’ set was that he far outshone his band. Their versions of Monsters of Folk’s “Dear God,” “His Master’s Voice,” “The Right Place,” and “Losin Yo Head” during the encore were lackluster in comparison to the originals. James’ exalted vocals and jangly guitar were right on point, but the band lacked a certain mastery and emotional oomph that the original supergroup is known for. Same goes for My Morning Jacket’s “Wonderful,” and the last track of the night – a Yim Yames cover from Guthrie’s unrecorded New Multitudes.
Jim James – or his alter ego Yim Yames, whichever way you look at it – is an enigma. Each of his projects culminate in resounding critical acclaim, and for good reason. He’s a talented dude, and always a beacon of eccentric creativity. He’s also insightful and funny: see exhibit A. And his set on Sunday was all of these things materialized, up-close and personal. Now only for a Monsters of Folk reunion…