Under a post-sunset sky of deep, velvety blue, The Spin ambled toward Cannery Row, pondering what we might expect from Jim James. The My Morning Jacket frontman had explored some decidedly pastoral territory in his previous non-band work, including covers of George Harrison and Woody Guthrie, plus a stint in Monsters of Folk, the supergroup that also featured M. Ward and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis. In all of his press photos, James was looking like a Beatle circa Abbey Road, and the word was that his first proper solo LP, Regions of Light and Sound of God, was inspired in part by Lynd Ward’s 1929 graphic novel Gods’ Man, whose plot applies the Faust story to the world of art. The tracks we’d previewed proved that beard-scratching sermonizing was out, so we stepped inside to investigate further.
Canada’s Cold Specks, a group handpicked by James for this tour, were mid-set when we arrived. With a studied blend of shoegaze and gospel with some free-jazz tinges, the ensemble featuring winds, dusty old synths and muted drums was a perfect match for front lady Al Spx. “Elephant Head,” the tune whose chorus provides the title of their debut record I Predict a Graceful Explosion, showcased the group’s complex mix of solemnity and exuberance, and Spx’s a capella rendition of “Old Stepstone” nailed the lid on any questions about her voice. The crowd, a solid mix of beards, popped collars and sundresses, applauded at all the appropriate times, but perhaps inspired by the warm wind, were clearly in the mood for a party, keeping a constant stream of chatter.
Conversation ceased, however, when the lights cut abruptly and rose slowly along with a guitar drone of seemingly Eastern origin. One by one, the band members took the stage, and the sonic mass formed itself into “State of the Art,” the opening track from the new record. Two multi-instrumental stations flanked the stage, one occupied by prominent Louisville producer and former Wax Fang drummer Kevin Ratterman. The thundering rhythm section featured drums by James’ longtime friend David Givan, who played with him in a pre-MMJ project called Month of Sundays.
Center stage, however, belonged to James, who took the mic and paced like a caged animal, delivering meditations and prophecies in a voice alternating between a warm, naked croon and a full-throated yawp buried in cascading layers of his trademark reverb. On a few occasions, he even ripped a solo on a saxophone. A constant reminder of My Morning Jacket’s history, James’ signature Flying V was displayed front and center, a place it would occupy for much of the night, though he used it sparingly. When he did pick it up, its sound was transformed through effects into an otherworldly synthesized scream, frequently dueling with Ratterman.
The band deserves equal billing with the frontman. Their ability to blend with him and each other, and to slide between contrasting styles, is nothing short of phenomenal. The night began with a warm electronic pulse flecked by glimmers of acid house, recalling Portishead or Achtung Baby-era U2 depending on the context, building to a crescendo of triple-drumming that faded into a Bonham-inspired solo by Givan that wasn’t impressive just as a technical feat, but for how well it was integrated into the set. When the band returned, they morphed briefly into a '70s funk orchestra before dipping into a moody Middle Eastern groove for “All Is Forgiven.”
What we thought was an encore, beginning with MMJ classics “Bermuda Highway” and “Wonderful” as solo acoustic numbers, turned into a full second set. Slowly, Monsters of Folk’s “His Master’s Voice” gave way to a focused jam akin to Traffic, before closing on a massive electric psych frenzy not unlike something from Spiritualized. The beat itself turned into a drone, and instrumental colors shifted and swirled in time with James’ leonine mane under the expertly-timed light show.
Sometimes, when an artist takes time off to examine what it is they’re doing and why they do it, they share their discoveries before they’ve translated them into something that an audience can follow. In the oldest sense of the word “idiot,” they speak a private language that only they understand. Thursday night, James and band proved beyond a doubt that they’ve worked through that phase of creative development, studying and applying all sorts of hypnotic drones to create an enticing landscape for tunes grounded in pop. They consistently surprised us with where they chose to go next, but the trip never felt haphazard or unplanned. Someone next to us sparked a J, and we were 17 with dad’s record collection again. Had we really been standing here for two-and-a-half hours? This is going to go over great at Bonnaroo.