September 9, 2008

My Morning Jacket Lives Up to the Buzz

Is there a rock band having a better year than My Morning Jacket? What fun it's been, these last few years, to watch the 10-year-old Kentucky band ascend the ranks of buzzed-about fan favorite to nationally adored concert powerhouse, delivering their Southern- rock-coated, Radiohead-meets-Neil Young-meets-Flaming Lips melange with increasingly more excitement.

In 2008, they've outdone themselves seemingly month to month, with the highs including a three-hour, two-set affair at the Bonnaroo Music Festival that ranked as the festival's most- discussed show; a June headline at New York's Radio City Music Hall that sold out in 22 minutes; sit-ins by everyone from Metallica's Kirk Hammett to Erykah Badu; and a new album, "Evil Urges," that comes close to choking on its own ambition but finds sloppy success - and occasionally genius - at its fringes.

To cap its epic year, MMJ will be headlining Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve, but if this past Saturday's 2 1 /2 - hour "evening with" affair at the Bank of America Pavilion was your only My Morning Jacket fix in 2008, you were duly satiated all the same. And an adoring and wholly lubricated crowd simply scoffed at any notion that the remnants of Hurricane Hanna would be a factor. Sure, the uncomfortably muggy air and drenching rain arrived on cue, but the quintet would not be denied. At the show's peaks, My Morning Jacket's sheer force of delivery, as well as its strobe-dappled light show, packed all the wallop the Pavilion could handle.

Eclecticism has always been a big part of MMJ's charm; frontman Jim James plays a wicked guitar, but it's the way he adapts his wailing, high-register voice to all of MMJ's modes - from raunchy boogie and sweetened reggae to hard-driving power rock, psychedelic freakouts and falsetto soul - that keeps things cohesive. That, and the protean, propulsive drum work of Patrick Hallahan, who's the band MVP among stiff competition from guitarist/utility man Carl Broemel, bassist "Two Tone" Tommy Blankenship and keyboardist Bo Koster.

All were in near-perfect synergy for the Pavilion set, which led off with a shaggy "Mahgeetah" and didn't let up, whether for the sly reggae-funk of "Off the Record," the jangly Who-like rock of "I'm Amazed," or the country in "Sec' Walkin'," which brought Broemel behind the pedal steel. The show's middle saw a few stumbling blocks: Much of "Evil Urges" material, with its Prince- and Michael Jackson-style falsettos and greasy arrangements, just doesn't take off like MMJ's other hallmark showstoppers, but the closing run, which included the wailing "Gideon" and a serious jam-out on "Dondante," finished things admirably.

Time constraints cut a planned six-song encore down to five, and that meant pruning fan favorite "Steam Engine" from the set list. But it was tough to argue with the groovy "Wordless Chorus," a lithe "Cobra," a throttling "Run Thru" and the band's customary knockout punch, "One Big Holiday." For the audience, the last song was a fitting descriptor for the show; for My Morning Jacket, probably its whole year.

CHAD BERNDTSON For The Patriot Ledger

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