Jim James and his band perform at the 9:30 Club on May 17, 2019. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)
Jim James has a totemic hold over the indie-rock scene — My Morning Jacket very much a universe unto itself (I bristle at the idea of calling them a jam band). Jim dropped by 9:30 Club for a pair of solo shows recently, and I caught the first of the two.
Born from the ashes of a destroyed bowling alley and named by a lone surviving coat with the letters “MMJ” emblazoned on its breast, The Tennessee Fire and At Dawn combined to spread the cosmogonic myth of My Morning Jacket. They played live often and long, spreading their brand of gospel and gathering devotion with every incendiary show. Jim James stood at the center of the entire story, first building the band first to play the songs his other (previous) band couldn’t or wouldn’t use. Echoes abounded, his voice somehow floating well beyond space and time.
My Morning Jacket changed over time, shedding and gaining labels like a snake shedding skins and coming out brand new but somehow still the same, eventually becoming the current lineup, and the sound shifted, though always built around Jim James. The band toured relentlessly until 2013, taking a hiatus following their last Circuital tour, beginning a fruitful solo period for Jim. He released Regions of Light and Sound of God in 2013 (right around my birthday, and named after Lynd Ward’s wordless woodcut novel), Eternally Even in 2016, Tribute to 2 in 2017, and then both Uniform Distortion and Uniform Clarity in 2018. Somewhere in that time, MMJ also managed to record, release, and tour the transcendental record The Waterfall (in my view, the band’s best since Z).
Jim’s solo albums have some common threads across them — thematic strands that also appear throughout much of MMJ’s oeuvre — the power of close thinking (meditation), the inevitability of change, reckoning with the self, the influence of technology and the need to master it, the constant search for hope. He writes about heady, almost-impossible topics for songs, the kinds of ideas that can fill a philosopher’s journals or a researcher’s lab notes, the expansive ideas that we so often avoid. And suddenly, we can digest these ideas, at least casually, and as a listener, when I spin Uniform Distortion, I honestly put down my phone, even if it streams to a Bluetooth speaker somewhere in my house. Jim has a gift for reinforcing awareness, consideration, and thought everywhere.
Stream Uniform Distortion by Jim James on Spotify:
Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to bring the fire and rock down the walls. He can switch between acoustic tunes edging on the hymnal and melt-your-face explosions of noise and sound more easily than anyone else in the music world. Most recent records Uniform Distortion and Uniform Clarity emphasize this tension, leaving behind the touches of soul that pervaded Eternally Even (great record in its own right), placing the guitar at the center of the stage with Jim’s voice, more electric and cluttered on Distortion and more acoustic and crystalline on Clarity. They acted (and continue to act) as counterpoints to each other, showing multiple sides to beauty, discordance, and harmony. While they have the same songs — two extra on Clarity — they are wildly different albums.
Stream Uniform Clarity by Jim James on Spotify:
That dichotomous presentation featured for Jim’s Friday set at the 9:30 Club on May 17, with something of an emphasis on the distortion side of things. Following a funky, joyful set from opener Amo Amo, Jim took to the stage with his band, standing stage left and flanked by the space to dance and jam that he’d inevitably require. Jim whirled wildly throughout the show, hair wheeling, fingers flying. He smiled often, waved and pointed at the crowd; although never really speaking, he connected to the audience directly as he knows best, through the song.
Flanked by a series of circular lights, Jim brought the spectacle of rock ‘n roll to the 9:30 Club, haloed and silhouetted in lightning-fast flickers during his incendiary solos, just fast enough to render movement like stop-motions. The band around him kept the torrid pace, as throughout the night, they ran through almost all of Uniform Distortion. They opened with “Over and Over,” a sort of mission statement about breaking the destructive cultural cycles that our society continues to perpetuate. It’s a kind of fighting song, its only violence in the volatile distortion that marks its ending. They followed with the almost-whimsical “You Get to Rome,” a rock and roll hymn to wandering.
After rippling through “Out of Time,” they played “A New Life,” a song off Regions of Light and Sound of God that makes me want to remarry and dance with my wife again and again. It’s a rebirth song, a shared promise, and intensely powerful to experience live.
They tore through a run of songs from Uniform Distortion, including the immediately crowd-pleasing “Just a Fool,” punctuating them with “Here in Spirit” and “The World’s Smiling Now” from Eternally Even, the former an impassioned cry for understanding, and the latter a sinuous, slinky tune that shook the balconies and hypnotized the audience.
Stream Eternally Even by Jim James on Spotify:
Jim James is a spirited advocate for peace, love, and equality, all at the same time as championing rock ‘n roll and all its sonic cousins as avenues for change and understanding. While those themes abound on his work with My Morning Jacket, he emphasizes them especially with his solo work. Never has this message been more important than at this time, with just this week the war on women (and marginalized peoples) becoming louder and clearer in Alabama and other states.
At their core, these songs possess a spirit of living and letting others live, but the explosiveness of the music suggests that a fight will inevitably ensue if the right to live is infringed upon. I will not speak for Jim’s politics, but I will add that his continued message of peace, love, and understanding has influenced me (and others) to step outside my own shoes, to consider the perspectives of those who are not like me.
The main show ended with “We Ain’t Gettin’ Any Younger” (I think both Pt. 1 and Pt. 2? I must confess my mind was clouded by the music) from Eternally Even, a plea to put the world together, to pick up the pieces (peaces). Jim came back onto the stage to sing what felt like an impromptu versions of “I’m Amazed” off My Morning Jacket’s Evil Urges and “Hopefully” from At Dawn (another song for lovers, one I never imagined I’d be lucky enough to hear on this night), both without the band. Love Femme from Amo Amo then joined him onstage for a spirited duet on “Of the Mother Again,” each of them donning black towels on their heads, both humorous and replete with gentle symbolism evoking ancient mothers. They ended the night with “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.),” his hopefulness and call too attention a fitting end to the night.
If you get the chance to see Jim play, please take it. If you don’t, please buy his records or at least stream them a few thousand times. And then do the same with the My Morning Jacket discography. I hope someday to see them set fire to the stone at Red Rocks. Just might have to make that pilgrimage.
Here are a few photos of Jim James performing at 9:30 Club on May 17, 2019. All pictures courtesy and copyright of Matt Ruppert.