Saturday night, I watched the same band mount the What Stage at Bonnaroo. Stretching out before the group of scruffy Kentuckians was a crowd large enough to populate a mid-sized city — certainly the biggest they'd ever played for; the biggest this Bonnaroo newb has witnessed in his years of concert-going. If the set that followed proved anything at all, it's that James & Co. have arrived, primed to hoist that major tent-pole. Their latest album, Circuital, is tailor-made for epically massive festivals. Case in point: “Holdin' on to Black Metal,” an anthemic, high-energy groove backed by a boy's choir. It's the kind of rock nobody makes anymore, like the band is stepping back from that electronic ledge and re-discovering their bread and butter. Hat-tip to the sound people, though. Enough can't be said about the mixing last night — big enough to resound in Mother Nature's amphitheater and crystalline enough to pick out every riff, every layer in the wall of sound that is MMJ.
But as good as their new material is, they played a hell of a well-balanced set, with crowd-electrifying faves like “Mahgeetah,” a tweaked version of “Golden” that sent chills running up my spine, and steel guitar-heavy Evil Urges highlights like “Smokin' From Shootin.'” MMJ shows seem to build their own inertia as they go along. A sense of drama pervades, and—by the time they finished with Preservation Hall Jazz Band-backed “Dancefloors” and “One Big Holiday — there's real catharsis. As para-gliders swirled overhead, dusting the crowd with blue glitter like iridescent snow, and scores of glow sticks were hurled by the crowd in neon firecracker bursts, we lit one up to commemorate the moment. Bonnaroo had truly begun.