For all practical purposes, this run of makeup shows in Chicago could be considered a new year’s event, set apart from the regular tour on the last weekend of the year. An event like this has the potential for greatness or disaster; the band could be a bit rusty having been off tour, but they could also be rejuvenated after a rest, and you know the singer’s voice won’t be blown out from belting it out night after night. The marquee claimed both nights had sold out, and the buzz in line outside the theater suggested Saturday night had been stellar. This boded well for my final show of the year.
The sound was pretty muddy to start the show, the bass largely washing out the guitar, but thankfully the lights made up some lost ground to help make “It Beats 4 U” pretty intense all the same. I really wanted to hear Jim James’ falsetto clearly on “Evil Urges” but the system wasn’t quite tweaked yet. “I’m Amazed” continued the trend of the first half of the show, largely comprised of material from the last two albums; this tune seemed to deflate in the end. All of the newer songs were being played pretty much by the numbers, sinking or swimming purely on their intrinsic strengths. It wasn’t until “Golden” that the band really started to delve, back into the old desert-country, the haunting vocal harmonies really coming through beautifully now. “I Will Sing You Songs” showed James really lighting up the room and the band weaving purposefully through a dense soundscape. They were on a roll until “Sooner” fell a little flat, and then it was like a trip to cheesy 70’s/80’s FM: “Thank You Too!” filled in for Little River Band, “Anytime” could’ve been Asia, and “Remnants” wasted its AC/DC potential and came out Loverboy. None of this was horrible, but it represented a side of My Morning Jacket’s intrinsic hearkening to various old genres that wasn’t quite hitting the spot.
“Lay Low,” with its Skynyrd-meets-Thin-Lizzy jam, kick-started a resurgence of excitement, though. Suddenly, the one-two punch of “Highly Suspicious” and “Off The Record” thrust the whole set into absolute greatness; I went from “I wonder what’s next” to “I hope they’ve got another hour in ‘em.” The crux of the set was “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2,” classic American rock spiked with soul, what Kings Of Leon try to be, and My Morning Jacket just is. Set closer “Run Thru” was just gravy, but oh so delicious, bluesy and grungy, maybe the closest modern kids could ever get to Zeppelin. Yeah, not that good, but still…
The encore was generous and never dull (except for the pointless “Cobra”); it could never match the power of the last six songs of the set, but it still left us wanting more. James brought it home with his banter about the “God-like brain architecture” in the lush theater and a solo performance of “Look At You,” a song that stalls the new album (2008’s Evil Urges) but shone in this setting, conjuring a truly Obama-lovin’ vibe. “Nashville To Kentucky” was a perfect year’s end sentiment, as James cried, “Take me out of this dead-end nightmare!” I guess we were all aching for 2009. The only complaint I could really level at MMJ is that drummer Patrick Hallahan sometimes holds the group back with his lack of finesse; he’s really more suited to hair metal than country/indie/funk rock, but as long as he doesn’t try to bust out a drum solo, I can live with him. It’s all about the tunes, and MMJ plays ‘em like a gospel.