My Morning Jacket has two things in abundance: ideas and hair. Whether one has an impact on the other is a question perhaps better suited for Eddie Vedder, as the fellows in My Morning Jacket are way too unconcerned about image to care whether it’s a good hair day or not.
Actually, maybe the boughs of dirty blonde curls that frame angel-voiced singer Jim James’ face are all a part of the shroud of mystery that My Morning Jacket tend to wrap their releases in. Their new double live album, Okonokos, offers the obsessive lyrics-booklet-reader nary a hint of when or where each song on the disc was recorded.
“All the tracks came from a couple different shows in an undisclosed location,” says bassist Two-Tone Tommy. “We just wanted it to kinda have a mysterious quality to it, to be some magical thing that took place somewhere that nobody knew about except the people who were there.”
The lucky audience members who’ve caught MMJ in the time since their most recent studio album, Z, came out, are probably nodding their heads right now and remembering the elaborate stage setup, complete with a faux forest with stuffed owls in the trees and a rainbow of lights piercing through lots and lots and lots of fog.
Each night, James would emerge through the fog carrying a lantern onto the darkened stage as the band launched into “Wordless Chorus,” the first song on both Z and Okonokos. To the listener, it seemed like there was an invisible thread linking James’ ethereal voice and neat guitar work with the elements contributed by the rest of the band: Two-Tone, drummer Patrick Hallahan, guitarist/saxophonist Carl Broemel, and keyboardist Bo Koster.
Festivals of all sorts — from Bonnaroo to High Sierra to Belgium’s Pukkelpop — have proven to be a fertile bed for the band to plant their seeds of unclassifiable, reverb-soaked, sometimes-maybe-ok-they-can-be-a-bit-jammy rock ‘n’ roll. This year was their fourth time playing the massive Bonnaroo festival, but the first time they were granted a coveted evening slot. Little did anyone know that when the band went onstage at midnight, they wouldn’t walk off until after 3 a.m., leaving tens of thousands of blissed-out fans basking in the reverb that seemed to hang in the air even longer than all that fog.
“That was the longest show we’ve ever played,” Two-Tone says. “We’d been there all day and it was so cool to take in that whole experience and then, at a time when you’d usually be going to bed or winding down, you’re gearing up to play a show. But no audience at any festival is the same … you get people who have never heard you before or only heard one song, and you also get to see other bands basically for free. That’s really cool.”
Often pegged by lazy journalists as a “Southern rock” outfit (James takes a clever swipe at the frivolity of trying to label the band in the liner notes of Okonokos), My Morning Jacket did originate in Louisville, Ky., and they did play “Freebird” while disguised as a bar band in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, but any Lynyrd Skynyrd comparisons should end there.
After releasing their first two albums, 1999’s The Tennessee Fire and 2001’s At Dawn, on small label Darla, the band made the major-label jump to Dave Matthews’ ATO (a division of RCA Records) for 2003’s It Still Moves, which was recorded in a silo in Kentucky, and last year’s Z.
In 2004, they were dealt a puzzling hand when lifelong friends and MMJ members Johnny Quaid and Danny Cash decided that the touring life was not for them any more and abruptly (but amicably) left the band. Of course, to grow a garden a little rain must fall, and after inviting Koster and Broemel to join up, the quintet headed to the Catskills with producer John Leckie (Radiohead’s The Bends) and birthed Z, possibly the group’s most instantly accessible album to date.
On Z, songs like the radio-friendly (with a bit of editing magic) “Off the Record” and hard-driving, Madonna-name-checking track “Anytime” rest easy next to epics like the airy requiem “Dondante” and the crunchy riffs that snuggle up next to plaintive keyboards and James’ Southern drawl in “Lay Low.” Both songs are also stand-out tracks on Okonokos, and, although this reporter has yet to see the accompanying DVD, it’ll be tough for it to compete with the actual live show.
Two-Tone reports that the band has no concrete plans for recording their next studio album, but, “hopefully by spring we’ll be in the heat of battle.” Longtime fans of the band are in for a treat before then, as the current tour will last through January.
“For this tour, we’re gonna pull out some old ones, like Tennessee Fire and At Dawn stuff,” Two-Tone says, “songs from the first three records that we don’t play anymore. There’ll be some songs that people haven’t heard in a couple of years and songs that we’ve never played live at all.”
What more enticement does anyone need?