- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2004

Reverb. There, I said it. My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James likes to sing beneath gobs of the stuff.

Now, can we move on?

Here’s my overarching conclusion about My Morning Jacket, Kentucky’s answer to New York City’s new rock renaissance, after its gig Saturday night at the 9:30 Club: I’d enjoy watching this band perform if I were deaf. Seeing Jacket in its dirt-rock glory is a treat all its own, quite apart from hearing how tight and heavy they sound.

The facial hair that starts at Mr. James’ forehead; the garish Flying V guitar; the Pete Townshend windmill moves — Jacket pulls it all off without the slightest trace of affectation or pose.

Judging from the press Jacket has generated over the past year, Mr. James doesn’t much care for attention paid to his band’s visual flair. Well, too bad; I mean it as a compliment, and I think elements of theatricality are as complementary to a great live show as lyrics are to music.

He’s right, of course, that we should all, eventually, focus on the music, and the music alone. My Morning Jacket isn’t breaking any new ground in that regard; the sound is a mixture of hard ‘60s garage rock and West Coast country rock — satisfying, if highly familiar.

Two things, though, are uniquely alluring about Jacket: the incorporation of the ambience of post-Radiohead British rock (brand-new keyboardist Bo Koster supplies those tones), and Mr. James’ voice. The most frequent comparison is, aptly, to Neil Young — the kind of sweet male tenor that can alter its tone to suit the hard, stripped-to-the-bones rock of a band like Crazy Horse.

Mr. James flogs his guitar in a Neil Young frenzy, too — preferring fire over precision, ruckus over technique. On upbeat songs such as “One Big Holiday” and “Mahgeeta” and such near-ballads as “Golden,” the band — drummer Patrick Hallahan, bassist Two-Tone Tommy and lead guitarist Carl Broemel — would follow his lead, shifting tempo and breaking into jams at unlikely moments.

Jacket’s improvisatory spirit owes more to Southern rock bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Widespread Panic than to jazz-infused bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish. More of that kind of thing, frankly, would’ve been better Saturday night.

The show had pacing problems: too many ballads stacked on top of one another throughout a lengthy, nearly two-hour set.

Prompted by Mr. James to clap along several times, the capacity crowd complied, briefly and half-heartedly, and then quickly chilled out. Does Jacket, for all its enthusiasm, fail to connect to its audience? Who can speak for 900 souls?

Whatever the band’s fans were feeling, Mr. James seemed ecstatic about selling out the 9:30 Club, having played there so recently (last September) and making such a big return. He recalled a Jacket date at the now-shuttered Metro Cafe, saying a gig such as Saturday’s was the stuff of dreams.

If the buzz now surrounding My Morning Jacket holds steady, these heartlanders can start dreaming of even bigger venues. And if that happens, Mr. James will have to kiss goodbye his unconcern for image.

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