By Peter Horn
The first night’s show in a three-day run can often times be an exercise in restraint. Preserving songs for later setlists, preserving energy for the two nights ahead. While it could be argued the former held true, those in the crowd at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium for My Morning Jacket’s opening show certainly didn’t witness the latter.
After 17 years and seven studio albums, one thing hasn’t changed: My Morning Jacket’s Jim James is still your rockstar’s rockstar. He embraces the frontman role, but does so with an understated, enigmatic grace, equally at ease slipping into the shadows to focus on experimental guitar improvisations as he is reemerging into the light, face upturned with a quiet, confident smile. Wearing black from head-to-toe with a sweeping trenchcoat, black sunglasses and more than a head full of shoulder-length curly hair, he has the unmistakable look of a rockstar, of someone who’s not like you or me. But what’s missing is the pomp and circumstance that often accompanies frontmen. On an evening where all eyes were on him, not a word came out of his mouth that wasn’t a song lyric, an indication of his singular focus on why we’re all here: the music.
While each member of the group is a talented musician in his own right, it’s clear that the band goes as James goes. To that point, the band’s live performances have somewhat mellowed over the years, likely a result of James’ physical limitations after a series of on and off-stage injuries. In the show’s more spirited moments, where in the past we may have seen James jumping and thrashing his guitar with primal fury, we instead saw him sway and slide across stage like a kid wearing socks on a hardwood floor- each movement calculated and precise, a synecdoche of the evening’s performance.
The setlist reads like a My Morning Jacket anthology, featuring albums ranging from the recently released Stinson Beach product, Waterfall back to 1999’s The Tennessee Fire and (nearly) everything in between. The capacity-level general admission section responded appropriately to crowd pleasers: “At Dawn,” “Lowdown” and “Circuital”, while a number of lesser known tracks appeased the setlist junkies, including Tennessee Fire’s “Picture of You,” which was played for the first time on their current tour. James and fellow guitarist Carl Broemel each contributed songs from their respective solo albums, as did Bob Dylan in the form of two tracks from Lost on The River, a side project of James’ which features tracks based on uncovered lyrics handwritten by Dylan in 1967.
While the opening “At Dawn” brought its expected share of ebullience, it wasn’t until the fourth song of the night, “Golden,” that James seemed to settle in and open himself up, letting out a long, pained howl as he quietly strummed his guitar to close the song. He would stop and repeat this series two more times, revealing what would prove to be a theme of the evening: while he is an unquestionably entertaining performer, it was made clear that we were on his time. His music, his stage, and if he wanted to stand in the dark and howl for three minutes, then by God he was going to find the moon.
The band’s extended performance of “Dondante,” an emotionally loaded track born from the loss of James’ childhood best friend, gave the windowless Masonic a sepulchral feel as James bled from his guitar, head hung low wearing a mask of sweaty curls, the pain nearly palpable. It was Broemel’s saxophone that would act as water on the flames, giving James the opportunity to walk backstage to say hello to his passed friend, as is his tradition each time the song is played. And it’s this ability to share with the crowd such an intimate and emotionally charged experience that sets this group apart.
There were few major surprises in the setlist—save for some tracks pulled from dusty albums—until the jarring transition from “O Is The One That’s Real” into “What A Wonderful Man,” quite literally catching the crowd flat-footed. They pulled the audience in with the opening keyboard riff then refused to let go, and after a quick switch to James’ Gibson Flying V, kept the pedal pressed down for the set’s final song, “Holding On To Black Metal,” the juxtaposition of aggressive guitar licks and James’ impossibly high vocals a fitting summation of the night’s spectrum of lights, sounds and emotions.
The band’s retreat backstage fooled no one, and the crowd’s persistence was rewarded with a four-set encore that pushed the concert’s song count to 25 and the timer to over 2 hours and 15 minutes, finally punctuated by the majestically simple “Phone Went West.” And with a round of bows and two hearty thumbs up from James, the five of them slowly walked off stage, leaving behind a sweaty crowd both thoroughly satisfied and hungry for more.