all words: Logan Donaldson
all photos: Shauna Alexander
On our way to Merriweather to see Friday’s showcase of My Morning Jacket and Neko Case, Shauna and I trailed behind an eggplant colored minivan with a piano keyboard sitting unsecured on its roof. We rode behind it for several hundred yards until we found ourselves parallel at a red light. I pipped the car horn, waved for their attention, and then improvised layman’s sign language, playing invisible piano keys and then pointing up. The man driving screwed up his face in confusion; it must have looked like I was signing a James Brown lyric (“ya gotta get down / if you wanna get on up-ah!”), so I unrolled my window and yelled the message. The baffled driver got out in the middle of traffic to retrieve it as we sped away. We saw the bizarre scene as a good tiding, a surprising musical non sequitor that primed us with a smile on the way to the Pavilion.
Rolling up to the sunswept grass n’ gravel parking lot, the weather was mild and breezy much to the relief of the tailgaters. Conditions were excellent to enjoy a summer concert, and though the crowd was sparse early in the evening, it was easy to settle into Neko Case’s opening set.
Neko, orange hair eye catching as always, walked on stage in jeans and a blue halter top with doily embroidery adorning her chest. At 40, she would have looked like a suburban mom if not for the big block letter tattoos on each forearm (the left reading ‘Beloved of the Sky’ and the right ‘Scorned as Timber,’ both references to an Emily Carr painting) . She was joined by backup vocalist mainstay Kelly Hogan, and a set of unassuming men filling in on strings and percussion.
The bassist had a prominent gut and a beard like a heap of Spanish moss hanging from his face. He looked like a mountain man, either capable of making his own soap or prefering not to use it at all. The multi-instrumentalist to the left looked professorial in his tweed jacket, hunched over his lap steel guitar, plucking notes and appraising each one like a gem.
Neko opened with “Teenage Feeling,” which is, lyrically, a favorite of mine (“I don’t care if forever never comes / ‘cus I’m holding out for that teenage feeling”). Her music is capable of informing a the of duskiest of moods, but for the most part the song selection was upbeat.
Her voice, soaked in reverb, sounded like a 3 a.m. in an empty jukejoint.Her albums give off a nocturnal vibe, so that’s why tracks with big hooks (“This Tornado Loves You” and “People Got A Lotta Nerve) engaged the crowd more than her slow waltz numbers (“Margaret vs. Pauline,” and a lovely unnamed new track that she dedicated to her band).
Any lack of energy was made up for in the sophistication of her songwriting and storytelling. She sings tales of dead friendships, faith spread thin, and of course spins many webs of love made or lost. But not that it was all so solemn. Her banter with the crowd was often amusing: “Do you think the term `making love´ is disgusting?… You won’t after tonight,” before striking into “Hold On.”
Combined with her novel take on country music traditions, knack for crafting images, using bizarre turns of phrase that stick with you long after the fact (“Salty tentacles drink in the sun” from “Red Tide”) and a gifted sense of melody, her performance was an understated but memorable one.
If her show was an introspective yin, My Morning Jacket’s set was the night’s wildly expressive yang. The pavilion and lawn crowds began swelling, even though the show was far from a sold out. Neko’s fans consisted of middle-aged alt country sophisticates and indie kids addicted to critical buzz. With the addition of MMJ’s jam band fan culture, the crowd took on a unique, somewhat segregated complexion, like a Neopolitan ice cream of people.
Up on the lawn, I had a feeling that if I yelled out “Who wants to play some disc golf?!” hundreds of shaggy hippie heads in tiedye shirts would grow rigid like prairie dogs on alert, swerving their heads in my direction like a supermarket full of women that just heard the word “MOM!” screamed out.
Dudes in Patagonia gear wearing visors and frat-straps shuffled in. Slow eyed stoner chicks with long, flowy dresses and butt length hair warmed up their dance circles. The sun went down and pairs of Raybans, prescription strength bifocals, and hemp necklaces studded with glass bead psychadelia glittered in the sunset all across the lawn. Then the lights shut off and the opening synth riff to “Victory Dance” off of MMJ’s 2011 album Circuital simmered over the sound system.
Lead singer and gentle giant Jim James strutted onto stage wearing a long coat with a glowing synthesizer box dangling from his neck, looking like a cross between the world of Blade Runner and Flava Flav (except, y’know, not black).
“Victory Dance” is easily my favorite track from that album and an ideal set opener. It sounds like a theme song to an imaginary western movie, the moment before a gun fight where eyes squint and fingers waver over holsters. It has a sense of humor about it too, with falsetto vocal lines that mimic a galloping guitar riff before the verse starts .Eventually the song’s finale reached a thundering rock crescendo like the staccato chaos of gunfire exploding in the shell of the pavilion.
Many of their songs wound up in similarly colossal, tectonic plate shifting jams. It’s fairly difficult to give a succinct description of the musical stylings that lead up to those points. Elements of funk, reggae, and a pinch of prog rock make up some of the ingredients, but the roux of the medley is southern rock and folk.
With pop sensibilities that comprise songs like “Anytime,” (which they didn’t play, no big deal or anything… /sniffle) and “Wordless Chorus,” their output is as popular with layfolk as it is with critics who appreciate their alt-country experimentation. Think Wilco but without an emo front man.
As a full moon ascended into the cool night sky, the band’s best track “Dondante” began its slow drumbeat. It’s a song that stands out most notably because of how moody it is compared to their mostly high spirited sounds. It starts out as a slow burner, erupts into a soaring rock combustion, and then ghosts away under the siren sounds of a saxophone. A gloomy blue light beamed on Jim James, who had a towel draped on his head like he was a druid high priest.
The video panels behind the band showed what looked to be galaxy clusters whipping by at light speed, enhancing the ethereal mood. If tracks were sponsored, this one would be brought to you by Zig Zags and Bic lighters.
MMJ played for just over 2 hours playing a total of two dozen tunes. One highlight of their set was a duet between Jim James and Neko Case who crooned “Islands In The Stream,” originally a #1 hit of 1983 performed by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers and written by the Bee Gees, but most of our generation recognizes it as the melody to “Ghetto Superstar.” It was a good choice for an encore, since it was a pure pop ballad and fitted well as a break from the 10 minute jams of their initial set.
After the show, fans left exhausted but fully entertained. Even though you could sense the long passage of time, there was seldom a dull moment from My Morning Jacket. With so many diverse ideas being bounced inevitably several of them stuck in your hear, and energy and movement propelled the band and audience all night. Although I didn’t see an untethered tuba on top of a VW bug on the way home, I was way too satisfied to think that the night could have ended any better.
You can find My Morning Jacket’s setlist here.