If you were to ask Jim James if he expected 25 years into their career that My Morning Jacket would still be seen as one of the best touring American Rock bands today, I’m sure he’d laugh. Because that wasn’t the roots of this band, on their debut record, The Tennessee Fire, James was simply writing and making songs about what he knew.
When James began writing My Morning Jacket tunes, it was simply an outlet for his softer and more fragile-sounding acoustic work that he couldn’t use with his band Months of Sunday. It’s funny how those embryonic stages of an artist's career can lead them down a completely different sound and path.
Music rooted in Country, Rock, and Psychedelic, with a mix of the doom and mystery of bands like Black Sabbath. To some, that may sound like a strange mix of influences. However, what those influences birthed is still some of the best rock records of the last 25 years. From The Tennessee Fire, At Dawn, It Still Moves, and Z, My Morning Jacket was the standard bearer in the early 2000s for what an exciting young indie act could be.
Their first record received minimal success in the U.S. but did gain traction in Europe however, when they returned from their European tour back to their home of Louisville, Kentucky, the band was met by a steadily growing fan base. Fans began to respond to James's atmospheric, reverb-filled vocals, the clear country twang to their guitars, and their ability to jump between the louder and quietest aspects of their experimental indie southern rock.
As their footprint grew, MMJ made early stops at local venues here in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, even James name-checking the venues they used to play early in their career during their Saturday evening performance at MegaCorp Pavilion.
“We grew up coming here, we go see shows at Bogart's over the river,” said James to the crowd. “And I remember we played shows here over at the Southgate House.”
The crowd erupted as the band's deep roots were felt throughout their performance.
The show began at 8:30 pm, with the band taking the outdoor stage. The sun was only beginning to set, which was perfect for the setlist they had curated. Opening with “Phone Went West,” a slower tune from their second record At Dawn. However, over the years, MMJ has updated the tune to serve as this upbeat, almost reggae-like sounding introduction. I found this version to be better in this live setting.
The next song would be arguably their biggest commercial success as a single, however, from a controversial time in the band’s history. “I’m Amazed” came off of their fifth studio album Evil Urges, a fairly different direction for the band up to that point. Whatever your feelings are toward that record, no one can deny there were some amazing songs on there. “I’m Amazed” being arguably the best song on there.
The next song, “The Way That He Sings, " was my favorite of the evening. As a long-time fan, I have a very soft spot for the entire album At Dawn. This is where the band began to find themselves, and James experimented with his vocals even more. Recorded in a barn in Kentucky, James gained more of that reverb and echoing sound that he has become known for. It’s also the most Kentucky-sounding record they’ve ever made. Their country influences are still worn proudly on their chests, they wrote their most personal songs, and somehow they perfectly encapsulate a Kentucky skyline in an album.
From there, the band ran through some more of their better live songs. “Love Love Love,” of their 2021 self-titled record. To “Mahgeeta,” a live standard for the band, off their critically acclaimed and fan-favorite third record, It Still Moves. Another personal favorite for me was “The Bear.” A hauntingly beautiful song off of The Tennessee Fire, also a very good sitting on your porch bourbon drinking song.
Another highlight of the show came when the band went from “Victory Dance” to “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 1” to “Circuital.” Three massive-sounding songs that each have these quiet crescendos into these euphoric releases. Each song can serve as intros or encores to their shows and give fans that high after hearing them. So to hear them back to back was something special for fans.
The set ended with another fan favorite, “Easy Morning Rebel,” maybe the closest they’ve come to ever writing a 70’s country song. Leaving for just a few minutes to take a quick break, as at this point, they had not stopped other than for James to speak to the crowd twice.
My Morning Jacket is the definition of a “Road-Dog,” band, and they give everything thing they’ve got in each performance. Especially drummer Patrick Hallahan, who, each time I see MMJ, I truly appreciate what both he and bassist Tom Blankenship bring to these live performances. Their thunderous rhythm section provides the perfect backbone in the juxtaposition of James’ softer moments to the boisterous guitar solos of Carl Broemel and the whales of James.
Their encore would consist of four songs. The first was a Jim James solo tune, “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U),” then into “Cobra.” However, the possibly most exciting moments of the evening came when the band broke into the head-banging “Run Thru” and arguably the song they’ve become best known for as a live performance, “One Big Holiday.”
Each song captures the most euphoric and exciting aspects of MMJ’s music. Songs like these and their live performances made Rolling Stone call them “America’s Radiohead and the Who.” It’s performances like these that make them, to this day, one of America’s greatest rock acts. For many of the fans there Saturday evening, they’ve been there from the beginning, and to see that local act playing at Southgate House nearly 25 years later just a few blocks away on the stage at MegaCorp Pavilion is something that every fan hopes for with their favorite artist.
If you’re interested in listening to a piece of My Morning Jacket history, they just released a live album of their 2003 performance at Bonnaroo, you can find that wherever you stream music. You can also see My Morning Jacket on their North American Tour.