Trawling through old files on my laptop, I just found some notes from an interview I did with My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, back in late 2006. It was only an email interview, which is probably lucky as I may have passed out from nerves if I’d had to speak to Jim – if pressed to name a favourite band, MMJ would be it. And because he also seems like a pretty weird guy.
The band were promoting their double live album and DVD, Okonokos, in which a searing MMJ concert was bookended film-student-style with random scenes of an old-time guy and an alpaca. Hence, Monty.
It’s a weird pattern that I never love bands more than in the incarnation in which I first discover them. For example, You Am I’s #4 Record isn’t perhaps as canonical as Hourly Daily or Hi Fi Way, but ever since I fished it out of a $5 bin at the St George electrical store in the late 90s it’s been my favourite of their albums.
Similarly, as talented as Jim James and co are, I think I’ll always feel they peaked with the first song of theirs I ever heard: “One Big Holiday” from their third album It Still Moves (2003). It was one of those moments when you’re stopped stock still by a riff on the radio, immobile until you can put a name to the magic.
It’s hard to describe the band’s sound because it’s changed so much over the years. Their earlier albums were at once as sparse as the Kentucky horizons that spawned them, and intimately humming with their trademark lashings of reverb. I always remember a reviewer described The Tennessee Fire (1999) and At Dawn (2001) as sounding as though they were recorded in a grain silo.
From the reverb-soaked freak-folk-rock-country of the early albums, they sharpened up their sound to make rousing balls-and-beards rock with It Still Moves, their first album for a major label. 2006’s Z saw a further, freakier evolution into stadium-sized belters like “Gideon” and “What A Wonderful Man”, with more than a hint of soul influences creeping in, and even touches of reggae (“Off The Record”). Haven’t yet spent much time with their latest, Evil Urges, but from what I’ve heard Jim’s embraced the soul falsetto even more. If there’s one consistent way
to describe MMJ? It’s real, honest, earnest American rock and roll.
The band have a reputation for killer live shows – they once played a four-hour set at Bonnaroo – so when I finally got to see them play in New York, ringing in the new year of 2009, it was on. Never mind that I knew no one – I was not going to miss this gig. In the end I met some wonderfully friendly bogans from Boston, who were perfect to share the moment with. In fact they were so generous with beers and the odd sneaky joint, now that I’ve found the setlist from that night online it’s bringing back all sorts of memories… And oh wow – you can actually listen to a recording of the set: (there are 36 tracks!)
That night, MMJ played an epic couple of hours. There was even an intermission, and as well as all their hits they covered Curtis Mayfield, Kool & The Gang, Marvin Gaye and “Islands In The Stream”. By the time they closed with “One Big Holiday” I was screaming every word. It was one of the best moments of my life.
“I am in Tennessee, out in the middle of the woods, staring at a computer screen. The perfect blend of tranquility and technology,” wrote Jim in that 2006 interview. Through both his love of soul classics and the spiritual references that often creep into his own songs, he seems like a very spiritual, philosophical guy. But my favourite quote concerns the band’s reputation as extremely hirsute dudes – I think I’d asked whether the beards held some Samson-like strength.
“I try not to think about my beard that much… but I do love it and believe every human looks best with his or her god-given beard. I believe one’s powers lie within and no change to physical appearance can stop that!”
Amen to that.