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My Morning Jacket’s “Waterfall” Unleashes a Rock-slide at NPR/KCRW’s ‘First Listen Live’

I am officially a My Morning Jacket convert. This is the result of attending last night’s first public performance of the band’s new album, Waterfall, a special Los Angeles event presented by KCRW and NPR’s First Listen Live.

This is not to suggest I had previously disliked anything about the Louisville rockers. Their work, exploring a vast range of styles, from southern folk to jam-band psychedelia, is irrefutably masterful and generally pleasing to the earholes. But nothing from their discography had ever jumped out and burrowed into my cerebrum, demanding repeated listens. I was, admittedly, My Morning Jacket neutral. Yet I had also heard stories of their mythical live shows — most notably a 2008 Bonnaroo set, which kicked off at midnight and lasted four rambunctious hours, that featured guest performances by Zach Galifiankis and Kirk Hammett, covered tracks by Erykah Badu and Mötley Crüe, and may or may not have created the vaccine for polio. Evidently, Jonas Salk plays a mean rhythm guitar. At least that’s the legend I heard.

Tonight’s show would be happening in Mack Sennett Studios, a legend in it’s own right. As host Jason Bentley (Morning Becomes Eclectic) pointed out, the wedge-shaped building had spent the previous 100 years as a home to film productions, and its far wall still bearing the Egyptian-themed mural from Michael Jackson’s epic music video for “Remember the Time”. In what seemed like an unnecessary precaution, that mural was safely draped off, while the buzzing, undistracted audience crowded the opposite wall’s wide stage where MMJ’s equipment awaited, guarded by a phalanx of poncho-clad teddy bears and action figures.

As mariachi music played from the speakers, Jim James and company (bassist Tom Blankenship, drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist Carl Broemel, and keyboardist Bo Koster — the crew since 2004) arrived on stage and immediately dove into Waterfall’s opener, the steady, inspirational build of “Believe (Nobody Knows)”. What struck me first was the intensity of the sound, loud and rich, rippling through the energized crowd. I glimpsed a few fans in the audience grab one another in ecstatic disbelief and a young couple embrace in a kiss worthy of a romance novel. The music had hardly begun, and people were already losing their shit. Coolly acknowledging the crowd’s enthusiasm with a thumbs up, frontman James launched into the desert howl of the record’s second track, “Compound Fracture”, over Hallahan’s dominant, driving kick-drum. With the exception of a handful of Harry Nilsson-like country tracks (“Get the Point”), this would be the common pattern of their set: the drums setting an impossibly loud and invigorated mark, challenging all the other components to reach up and join, each in turn, until the constant build reaches a crescendo of critical mass, and releases in an immersive downpour of sound.

After the psychedelic journey of their fourth song, “In It’s Infancy (The Waterfall)”, James spoke to the audience for the first time, explaining, “It’s funny, we built that song as a matrix we hope people could get lost in… but it’s easy to get lost in it yourself.” And it’s true — their music is deceptively easy to get lost in, so long as you’re listening to it correctly. I realize the reason I had never connected with My Morning Jacket before is because I was going about listening to them all wrong. My Morning Jacket is not a band to play casually or in the background; they are a band to blow out your speakers to, and even that it is a poor substitute for the intensity of their live shows.

For the final song of their four-song encore (fittingly, Circuital’s “Victory Dance”), James draped a black towel over his head and wore a launchpad around his neck, it’s rubber buttons glowing red and blue, giving him a very Darth Vader-esque look (obligatory Star Wars reference achieved). You can see it for yourself, when NPR First Listen posts the entire show on May 13th, or listen when it airs on Morning Becomes Eclectic. Until then, enjoy the clip below, featuring “Spring (Among the Living),” “Thin Line” and “Big Decisions”.

The full set list reflected the album’s tracklist:

  • “Believe (Nobody Knows)”
  • “Compound Fracture”
  • “Like a River”
  • “In It’s Infancy (The Waterfall)”
  • “Get the Point”
  • “Spring (Among the Living)”
  • “Thin Line”
  • “Big Decisions”
  • “Tropics”
  • “Only Memories Remain”

With encore composed of older favorites:

  • “Wonderful”
  • “Down On Bottom”
  • “Circuital”
  • “Victory Dance”

[All photos by Ethan Shvartzman]


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