Photo: My Morning Jacket at this year’s Bonnaroo.
The first time I saw My Morning Jacket, they were playing an afternoon set at Bonnaroo. It was June 2005, several months before Z’s release, and the guys were just beginning to combine their heartland rock & roll with the spacey, oddball trippiness that came to fruition with 2008’s Evil Urges. For a first-time listener, the combination was a little confusing.
During the beginning of the set, Jim James introduced “Dr. Frederick von Guggenheim,” a man dressed up in a coattailed tuxedo and powdered white wig who went on to “conduct” the entire show. A group of oversized puppets joined Dr. Guggenheim after each song, shuffling onto the stage one-by-one and remaining there until the encore. First up was the giant giraffe with an overbite… then the larger-than-life George Washington… then the cockroach. As My Morning Jacket rocked, the puppets danced and the doctor conducted. I didn’t know whether to focus on Jim James’ high-lonesome drawl or George Washington’s paper-mache ascot.
Half a decade later, My Morning Jacket’s Southern psychedelia is no longer a work in progress… nor does it need puppetry to pack a bunch. After headlining Lollapalooza earlier this month, the guys stopped by suburban Detroit on Tuesday evening, playing a 2.5 hour set to a crowd that was sadly small — one out of every four seats seemed to be empty, and there was a rare amount of elbow room in the pit – but somewhat fanatical. The band’s super-fans are really a sight to behold, especially in a state that hasn’t seen a My Morning Jacket concert since 2008. They know every word. They go nuts whenever Carl Broemel blows notes into his saxophone. And if James’ guitar shorts out during “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” they can be counted on to howl every note, turning what began as an acoustic performance into an a cappella sing-along.
After watching the band headline two festivals this summer, it was nice to watch My Morning Jacket play a weekday show at an anonymous amphitheater. It’s harder to elevate that sort of crowd. People have just gotten off work. They have to go back to the office the following morning. They haven’t been waiting at the front of a soggy field to watch your set. But My Morning Jacket seem to have the ability to draw you out of your everyday surroundings – say, the upper-class environs of Rochester Hills, MI – and put you right back into that festival mentality, where you’re willing to go totally nuts as soon as “One Big Holiday,” the tour’s go-to closing number, roars its way through James’ guitar amp. Throw an onstage cameo by opening act Neko Case (who joined the guys on a cover of Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”) into the mix, and you’ve got more eye candy than Dr. Frederick von Guggenheim could ever muster. On Tuesday, though, it was all about the music… and the music did not disappoint.