You never know quite what you are going to get out of performance from My Morning Jacket (also known as MMJ). The southern rockers don’t tote around a consistent set list from show to show, and their catalogue is so expansive that it provides them a massive well from which to pull from. On the band’s current tour in support of this year’s excellent The Waterfall, fans can help form each night’s set list in what the band is calling the “Spontaneous Curation Series,” which allows audience members the opportunity to suggest song choices prior to the concert through online forums and Twitter. Given the fervor of MMJ fans and the multitudes of sounds the band have worn over the years, it’s a given that each performance is subject to huge variability.
With every handcrafted set list MMJ rolls out, your mileage will vary depending on your personal musical preferences. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the most talented rock and roll bands around, and any show is sure to be filled with multiple awe-inspiring moments and a jaw-dropping display of technical proficiency. Frontman Jim James exudes a soulful, yet animal-esque magnetism on stage. Everything from his strut to his strumming screams bonafide “rock god” — and that’s not even mentioning his voice, which he uses to project a barrel of sound that can switch from tender to triumphant and hit every note perfectly in-between.
The other four members of the Kentucky quintet prove a dexterous cast capable of wailing on a saxophone, dancing over beautiful piano melodies, and slamming down tireless rhythms — the last of which comes courtesy of mammoth drummer Patrick Hallahan. Last Friday’s performance was a tour de force in southern stadium rock, the band’s second of three San Francisco shows at The Masonic kept the energy from hardly ever dipping below a roar.
Which proved to be, for me, the biggest drawback of the night. My Morning Jacket are a band that is untouchable when it comes to performing raging rockers, sure, but their catalogue is filled with numerous slow burners and delicate down-tempo tunes. This tender side of the band was primarily ignored on Friday, with the focus instead on how skillfully these guys can shred. Which, to be fair, is incredible to witness. The new album tracks, including “Believe (Nobody Knows),” “Tropics (Erase Traces),” and “Spring (Amongst the Living),” all hit with a massive weight, meanwhile the group dipped all the way back to their 1999 debut, The Tennessee Fire, to give “The Dark” and “War Begun” heavy-hitting live updates.
“Mahgeetah” was a classic show closer that would have threatened to break down the walls had it gone on any longer than the already lengthened version the band churned out, and when preceded by the blitzing “Anytime,” it made for a one-two punch that kept ears ringing long after the lingering distortion from the last note finally died down. Even with all that being said, however, by the end of the performance I was left shaken but not sold by what I saw on stage.
My only other experience seeing MMJ was at Neil Young’s Bridge Benefit Concert in 2013 – the show that initially ignited my fandom after I left mesmerized by the pure joyousness the band brought to the stage. Given the acoustic limits Bridge Benefit imposes, that set was centered on the most melodic elements of the band’s music and emphasized a level of patient splendor that bordered on blissful. Jim James gave this past Friday’s crowd a glimpse of that beauty in the form of the stunning middle section of the show, where the band performed The Waterfall’s contemplative closing track “Only Memories Remain” with a level of restraint that highlighted the poignant conclusions imparted by James’ lyrics. MMJ followed a groovy, yet delicate, jam on the song’s tail-end by inviting Eric Johnson of the Fruit Bats (the night’s openers) on stage to trade soaring vocals on the primarily acoustic “Wild Honey” and “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).”
The audience went into a mesmerized hush by the lovely performance from two artists who clearly adore one another’s music. As James let his voice soar through the warm air of The Masonic, I sat transfixed — only to wind up slightly disappointed as he went on with the rest of the show without returning to that level of melodic magnificence. I am thankful to those five amazing performers for having rocked me to my core with the overwhelming power that only a handful of bands are capable of summoning, but call me ungrateful for having wished they let their softer side shine.