Probably the most oft-heard reason why some people dislike My Morning Jacket is because of all that damn guitar work. “They’re supposed to be an indie-rock band, not a jam band,” that sort of thing you hear.
How unusual and ultimately rewarding it was, then, to see the group’s frontman Jim James play so little guitar Monday at First Avenue. Touring behind his first solo album, the Yeti-haired Kentucky rocker used a six-string about as often as the Eagles use Timothy B. Schmitt as a lead vocalist. For much of the concert, he left a Gibson Flying V perched on a stand at the front of the stage, almost looking as if it were on an altar being offered as a sacrifice. In its place, he offered up some godly vocals.
It seems this album and tour are largely intended to showcase and perhaps challenge James as a singer, and that was enough to impress the sold-out and adoring crowd. He and a new four-member backup band performed his new record, “Regions of Light and Sound of God,” in its entirety for the first 70 minutes of the show.
With a nifty, crescent-shaped light backdrop that looked like a Ferris wheel cut in half, James looked like the band leader of a ‘70s soul revue. He wore a skinny tie and jacket and spent much of the show strutting around with microphone in hand, sometimes even side-step dancing. During the second song, “Know Til Now,” he busted out an alto sax and played it like some kind of jazz hepcat, as he would several more times in the set. In the more serene gem “A New Life,” he made grand gestures like repeatedly kissed two fingers and holding them in the air. Some fans chuckled thinking the rocker was goofing off, but it really did seem like he was naturally feeding off the album’s psychedelic soul vibe and thick, slow-grooving R&B rhythms.
The old-soul sound really jibed in the slow-saying “Of the Mother Again,” the highlight of the set alongside the freakier and frantic climax “All Is Forgiven.” Fans stayed responsive and engrossed throughout the new material until the final song, “God’s Love to Deliver,” an already turgid if lovingly crafted ode to Dr. King that was stretched out and worsened with long sax parts and other musical filler. It’s the one time the show felt “jammy.”
The long encore of older material proved unusually disappointing compared to the full album performance. It started out golden with a solo-acoustic version of My Morning Jacket’s “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” but that was the only MMJ tune offered. Instead, James stuck to showcasing four of his contributions to the all-star group Monsters of Folk, including the dour duds “Dear God” and “His Master’s Voice.” Those selections coolly matched the spiritual tone of his solo album – as did “Changing Worlds,” from the New Multitudes record of Woody Guthrie lyrics -- but they hardly provided the kind of rousing, first-in-the-air energy expected at a rock show. At least fans already knew by showtime that James would be back to deliver that kind of performance soon enough.
[Photo: Star Tribune]