I wouldn’t flinch if some governing body deemed My Morning Jacket the best live rock band in music right now – not a bit. The band is tight and rocks the fuck out – capable of cranking out pop rockers, electronica-tinged experimental indie, psychedelic jams, crisp country ballads, and anything in between with ease. They are incapable of doing wrong because their eclectic and masterful sound is tethered by Jim James expansive vocals.
What better place to experience the voice of a bearded Kentucky angel than the majestic splendor of Red Rocks Amphitheatre? A geological anomaly of sandstone projecting from the foothills of the Rockies creates one of the best, most natural acoustic environments on the planet. The acoustics are preserved by massive “Ship Rock” at the back of the venue and “Creation Rock” to the side, all while the bands performance emanates from another, smaller sandstone monolith behind the stage. The scenic beauty and acoustic perfection are accented by sweeping views of the park and greater Denver on the horizon. MMJ’s performance was further supplemented with a sustained, cool mountain gust for 3/4 of the show and a heat lightning storm in the distance.
OK, now that I got all this talk about powerful rock bands and acoustically perfect venues out of the way, there were some serious sound issues for the first half of the show. This would have been a large let-down considering the excitement of seeing a band that sounds like MMJ in a venue like that, but the overwhelming grandeur of the experience prevailed. It seemed, at times, I could hear the band playing through their onstage rigging while the large PA system cut in and out. The discrepancy between the volumes was irritating. The acoustic and quieter songs came off without a hitch, but the larger songs with effects like distortion and reverb were marred. I chalk this up to electrical problems, human error, or the relatively strong breeze during most of the show. Somewhere past the halfway point the PA system took over with crushing volume. The earlier patchy sounds were gone and the amphitheatre was filled with rock (no pun intended) the way I anticipated.
Jim James and company brought a big setlist with new stuff like the rousing “Victory Dance” as an opener as well as “Circuital” and “Out of My System.” They played a good mix of classics including “Golden,” “Magheetah” (the only song in the second half with a sound issue. For about 20 seconds there was this god-awful sound of which I could not determine the origin that was louder than the instruments ), and they even brought out a rarity in “The Bear.” The highlight was a magnificent, 20 minute extendo-jam of “Dondante,” a swirling and chaotic “Run Thru / Strangulation” and a crushing encore that included a huge “Wordless Chorus,” “Holdin’ on to Black Metal,” “Anytime,” and “One Big Holiday”
On albums, MMJ is taking on a more mature singer / songwriter approach to music as opposed to the big alt-rock jam sound of the past. Catching them live brings the best of both worlds.