Jim James: Webster Hall, New York, NY 4/29/13

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My Morning Jacket front man Jim James’ quirky, stylistic evolution over the last decade-plus has kept listeners on their toes.  From the acoustic, vaguely alt-country crooning of My Morning Jacket’s early records, to the reverb-drenched arena rock of It Still Moves and Z, and ultimately the eclectic variety of the band’s most recent offerings, fans have kept pace with his artistic sensibilities

These fans were not disappointed at a sold-out Webster Hall, James’ second New York City date in support of his solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God.  Beginning with the record’s opening track, “State of the Art – A.E.I.O.U.”, James and his new, four-piece band brought added energy and immediacy to the material, with the crowd matching his relentless enthusiasm note for note.  For an album marked by its subtlety and spiritual content, James’ live translation is remarkably punchy, with consistent, driving rhythms, escalating guitar and saxophone solos, and his trademark vocal energy. 

The ensemble, anchored by a rock-solid rhythm section of Dave Givan on drums and Alana Rocklin on bass and rounded out by Dan Dorf on keys and the versatile Kevin Ratterman on guitar, keys, and synth/sample duty, proved more than capable in running through the album in order.  The group stretched itself out on “Know Til Now” and “Dear One” in particular, with a distortion-fueled transition into an extended drum solo on the latter leading the way into the record’s brightest spot, “A New Life” – the band’s most coherent and well-received performance of the evening.

But this night was a showcase of Jim James, whose meandering musical aesthetic is matched only by his evolving stage persona.  His head-banging, cape-wearing, throwback rock-star act has given way to a suit-and-tie soul presence augmented by sliding, shimmying, and close (sometimes physical) interaction with his audience.  His hyperactive, Flying V guitar solos on songs like “God’s Love to Deliver” were balanced by soulful, competent saxophone parts that added depth to a performance marked by the careful, intense delivery of the album’s uplifting, zen-like lyrics.

Much has been made of the spiritual content of Regions of Light and Sound of God, and the encore songs that followed maintained a consistent tone.  The band ran through straightforward yet intriguing arrangements of “Dear God”, “His Master’s Voice”, and “The Right Place”, three of James’ contributions to his Monsters of Folk collaboration with Conor Oberst and M. Ward, which kept a thematically even keel to the show. 

But James is still a rocker at heart, and rounded out the night on a familiarly energetic note.  Before closing the curtains with New Multitudes’ “Changing World”, James reverted to the pure, major key rock sensibility he’s known for with “Losin’ My Head”, another Monsters of Folk number.  As James and Ratterman traded guitar solos in a flurry of hair and angst, it was hard not to appreciate the depth of the front man’s output and wonder what new life he will start next.

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