- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

There are plenty of places that aspiring bands go to try to make it big: New York, Southern California , Nashville. Other decent-sized cities, such as Seattle, New Orleans, Memphis, Detroit, Orlando, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Athens, Ga., have earned a reputation as being breeding grounds for musical movements — grunge, jazz, blues, rap, teen pop, neo-soul, hip hop, and alt-country.

But what about the hometowns? Some bands with a combination of groundbreaking talent and civic pride manage to single-handedly make a musical name for theirs. The rapper Nelly brought new musical credibility to St. Louis. Dave Matthews proved that Charlottesville, has something to contribute to society besides UVa. grads. And now the rock ‘n’ roll band My Morning Jacket is slowly but surely giving Louisville, Ky., a claim to fame other than Muhammad Ali.

“We’re really proud to be from Louisville,” the group’s founder and frontman, Jim James, says. “It’s an amazing place to grow up and, as far as music goes, not many people come from there, so there aren’t a lot of preconceived notions as to what kind of music we’re supposed to make or what we’re supposed to be. It’s really affected how we do things as a band and has given us a lot of freedom.”

Ironically, MMJ got its first real break not in its hometown, or even its home country. After recording and releasing their first album, “The Tennessee Fire,” in 1999, Mr. James and bandmates Johnny Quaid, Two-Tone Tommy, Danny Dash and a since-departed drummer (a role now filled by Patrick Hallahan), slogged through the local scene playing far-from-packed houses. But when MMJ’s indie label Darla Records released the disc in Europe, one Dutch journalist rhapsodized about the album in an article, and My Morning Jacket ended up a critical sensation in the Netherlands and the subject of a Dutch documentary film.

The attention from across the pond gave the band the affirmation it needed to keep going and trying to make it big stateside. An aggressive touring schedule as the opening act for bands such as Guided By Voices, Ben Kweller and Doves in 2002 got the buzz started, prompting industry bible NME to call it “America’s Best New Band.” A strong set at 2002’s South by Southwest musical conference got the attention of national music publications such as Blender, which praised the group’s “Neil Young-inspired guitar freakouts, thunderous rock & roll stage moves and warm, intricately woven melodies that recalled mid-period Pink Floyd.”

With the critics in its pocket and the popular attention growing, bigger labels started courting the band and MMJ eventually signed with Dave Matthews’ ATO Records. Mr. James says the label appealed to them because it made the “simple but hard” promise to give the band autonomy and support. “So far it’s been real good,” he says.

The increased visibility landed the band an opening slot on last summer’s Foo Fighters tour, and now the band has enough momentum to headline its own dates. On Saturday, it will play the 9:30 Club in support of its ATO debut, “It Still Moves.” While Mr. James says he relishes seeing the rewards for all the hard work start to roll in, he and his bandmates want to keep their home-grown perspective.

“It’s a really weird, really tough business that’s always changing, and it teaches you to ride the wave and not overcount it,” Mr. James says. “For us, it’s important to keep disappearing in the music as well as we can and not really worry about the business stuff. I don’t really care much if we get in Rolling Stone or pack Giants Stadium — I just try to make the best music I can. All the rest of the stuff is out of our control.”

Based on the depth and musicianship on “It Still Moves,” Mr. James and Co. should look forward to staying on top of that wave for a while. The sturdy, 74-minute disc is stuffed with smart, intense, emotionally provocative lyrics and textured production that stops just short of too much. On stage, MMJ has established a reputation for being a great live band. Their secret, according to Mr. James, is that they know how to have fun on stage while still keeping the songs powerful.

“We just want people to come in and hear the music,” he says. “If I had my way, I’d have every one come in blindfolded so they could just listen. I like the thought of getting inside someone’s brain and taking them someplace.”

• • •

Vocalist Sarah Brightman — who began her career as a cast member of the longest-running Broadway musical, “Cats,” and made her name as Christine in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” — set out for a solo career in 1997 with her platinum debut “Time to Say Goodbye.” Her haunting, powerful soprano has made Miss Brightman a fixture on Billboard Magazine’s Classical Crossover chart, where her five previous CDs have sold more than 15 million copies combined. Tonight she will perform at the MCI Center in support of her latest disc, “Harem,” a provocative 10-song collection driven by sensuous Middle Eastern rhythms and instruments.

Though she’s been solo for more than seven years, Miss Brightman still has a theatrical heart. Her stage shows are full productions, and “Harem” provides a great template for what will undoubtedly be a night to remember. The word “harem” means “forbidden place” in Arabic — not something one would normally say of the MCI Center. And tonight, it won’t be.

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