TERRESTRIAL TRANSCENDENCE

July 29, 2015
by
4 mins read

Born in 1998 as a humble little solo act with a haunting, cavernous sound, Louisville, Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket have expanded exponentially in the years since. The band’s first three reverb-drenched albums, The Tennessee Fire,At Dawn, and It Still Moves, are revered as psychedelic Southern rock classics. 2005’s Z and 2008’s Evil Urges careened in funk, reggae, glam, and R&B directions. 2011’s Circuital crested towering space-rock heights. And 2015’s Waterfall is MMJ’s most mature work yet — still full of epic art-rock elegance but also lyrically grounded more than ever before in the pitfalls of everyday life.

Surprisingly, My Morning Jacket’s consistently excellent discography doesn’t do justice to their outsize reputation on stage. Widely hailed as one of the most powerful live rock bands in existence, they routinely sell out multi-night stands in major markets. They’re notorious for playing four-hour marathon sets at major festivals like Bonnaroo. They even self-curate their own weeklong musical getaway in Mexico.

One thing that hasn’t changed during My Morning Jacket’s long, strange trip to indie superstardom is the band’s accessibility. Even as frontman Jim James has morphed into a bona fide musical celebrity, his voice still beckons as one of the sweetest concoctions available for consumption today. And as they’ve grown, any borders cordoning off their fan base have mostly dissolved. Case in point: I don’t know a single old-school MMJ fan who wasn’t dying to hear Waterfall when it came out in May — or who hesitated to plunk down $45 to see them on Aug. 1, when they return to the St. Augustine Amphitheatre.

And we’ve got reason to be excited. “[Waterfall] has been the most friendly album to our live show that we’ve ever made,” drummer Patrick Hallahan tells Folio Weekly. “There’s a grace period between recording an album and learning how to play the new songs on stage, which is a different setting that calls for different emotions. But I think we rehearsed [Waterfall] for three days. Everything fit right in to our current setlist rotation. This album just wanted to be played live.”

Which is not to say that Waterfall doesn’t mark another impressive evolution for My Morning Jacket. In pre-press, frontman Jim James talked at length about the broken body and broken heart he brought to the recording sessions. Although he’s famous for his wide-eyed optimism — Pitchfork.com accurately described him as routinely “feeling wonderful about a wonderful higher power for giving wonderful men the most wonderful voices” — James explores darker personal feelings on “Get the Point” (“And then I realized all the time I was wasting/Trying to mend a broken situation”) and “Compound Fracture” (“If we ain’t careful as to where we step/Paradise calling or untimely death”).

But Hallahan emphasizes that Waterfall still came together organically — and without any serious thematic planning. “Jim always sets the tone for the songwriting process, but on this album, his demos were very loose. We had no idea what we were going to make — seriously, no idea. We brought all of our equipment and didn’t use half of it. Just used the tools we’ve developed over 15 years of working together to write the album in one big group session — and very much in the moment.”

The recording environment — a studio perched high above the Pacific Ocean in rural Stinson Beach, California — contributed immensely, too. Although Waterfall’s production value is elegantly lush, it also exudes the kind of corporeal physicality that was so evident on My Morning Jacket’s early works, many of which were recording in a Kentucky grain silo. “We don’t like distractions when we’re recording,” Hallahan says. “We really like to remove ourselves from society, and Stinson Beach was perfect for that. Every day, we’d hike 45 minutes on the beach and then 15 minutes up this incredible hill to the studio. Then we’d walk home at night and have a whole different experience. That stuff seeps into the art.”

Harnessing hippie mysticism — that helps to explain the emotion embedded deep into My Morning Jacket’s music. But words can’t quite describe the feeling of their live show, when the stratospheric strains of set-opening crowd favorites like “Mahgeetah” and “Wordless Chorus” unfurl. Hallahan chalks up such transcendence partially to the band’s chemistry; after several early shuffles, the lineup of James, Hallahan, Tommy Blankenship, Carl Broemel, and Bo Koster has been steady since 2004. “We just try and have fun on stage,” Hallahan says, deflecting questions about such onstage magnetism. “Whatever happens, happens. If we’re not having fun, nobody’s going to have fun.”

The good news for First Coast music fans is that My Morning Jacket has more fun than usual in the Oldest City. “Like all Kentuckians, I grew up vacationing in Florida, and St. Augustine was always one of our first stops,” Hallahan says. “I’ve always had a love affair with that town. There’s a certain charm that comes with age. And the last time we played there, we had the next day off, so we all went to the Mill Top after our show and had the greatest night ever.”

 

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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