by Katie Bain
On the night of November 21, 2006, Jim James roared like a hirsute Kentucky tornado, if a hirsute Kentucky tornado could wear a vintage Mount Rushmore t-shirt. Geography placed him in Milwaukee, where he was touringZwith My Morning Jacket, but the cumulative effect of the performance caused a path of beautiful destruction permanently seared into the audience’s mind. Checkthe setlist: it reads like rock porn.
Then there was June 10, 2011. James donned shaggy calf-length boots ostensibly assembled from albino yak fur as he and MMJ mesmerized 50,000 on the Bonnaroo mainstage, where the band had ascended after years of late night performances at the festival that immediately attained mythological status. Cut to October 13 of this year—Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium – where James rocked a long, slightly rumpled silken black robe and dark sunglasses. They stayed on for the entirety of the show.
I remember these specifics because I’m a My Morning Jacket apostle (and also because I bought that same blue and purple t-shirt during a 1995 family vacation to Mt. Rushmore.) What follows is a fan account of the band and its frontman. Objectivity is impossible for the truly devoted.
In this culturally confused era, the term “rock star” gets unceremoniously slapped on overnight artists with fickle social media followings and slim catalogues of Top 40 schlock. To paraphrase the man himself:We are the innovators; they are the imitators.(All apologies, Imagine Dragons). Being a real rock star isn’t necessarily about mainstream appeal. It’s about wearing clothing that looks stolen from the Cirque du Soleil props closet and your grandmother’s attic, while still looking like the baddest motherfucker in the room. Revisit some old Prince videos. Have a séance with Bowie. Watch Jim James. The key factor is swagger. You’ve got it or you don’t, but you can’t be a rock star without it.
As the last great rock band to slip into musical consciousness before the Internet-led music industry implosion, My Morning Jacket securely land on the side of history that includes the Stones, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, The Band and The Muppets – all of whom James has cited as influences on MMJ. While the bulk of these aging greats remain famous for music made decades ago, My Morning Jacket exists as the genre’s vital torchbearer. They might be the last great classic rock band, and James, the last great classic rock star. Jack White counts as a contemporary, but no one else comes close.
If you’ve seen My Morning Jacket live, you understand. Even now, 17 years and hundreds of shows after their conception, they generate those inviolate and increasingly rare sensations: rock as ritual, music as salvation, the sultry onstage mysticism rarely generated by a guy with a laptop. This spooky southern charm first materializes on their 1999 debutThe Tennessee Fire. Take a moment now to listen to the multi-movement masterstroke “Cobrafrom 2002’sChocolate and IceEP. (Warning: It’s 24 minutes long.) By 2006’s timelessZ, they’d cracked the code between pop, soul, and psychedelic rock.Circuital(2011) found them experimenting with odd, interesting funk before they returned to their roots, wiser and more road weary, on last year’sThe Waterfall.
At all stages of this evolution, James incites mass levitation through his somehow dually guttural and angelic falsetto howl, which serves as the through line of the band’s catalog. It is a depth of the soul wail, filtered through layers of born-with-it swag and kinetic presence. Maybe all the years of hard touring have put James in scenarios where he was just going through the motions, but that seems unlikely. The man bleeds onstage, every time.
But while the rock star lineage is populated with backdoor men begging listeners to light their fire, the thing that sets James apart from his come-on-baby predecessors is that his essential essence doesn’t drip with sexuality. While Page, Plant, Jim Morrison, Hendrix, Jack White and nearly every other rock star have all placed hardcore lust on the forefront of their work, dropping panties around the world in the process, James seems less concerned with bump ‘n’ grind and more interested in how the notion of lust fits into greater narrative of man’s search for meaning. While he’s not chaste, James is a man conflicted. (He did, after all, pen the line “touch me, and I just think I’ll scream.”)The Waterfalltracks including “Big Decisions” and “Get the Point” are clearly the public diary of a man in the midst of romantic turmoil, the band’s thematic focus goes well beyond sex, incorporating notions like spirituality, death, power, technology, and whatever the hell “Holdin’ On to Black Metal” was about.
Live, James is all power and velocity, building the vibe of each set like a southern-bred shaman until he’s ripping his guitar in tandem with the rest of the band and contributing to a sound that is bigger than all of them combined. While James doesn’t get as much recognition as his forebears, (or even as much as White), he is one of the definitive guitarists of our generation, evoking as much beauty and thunder with his instrument as he does with his voice. For the audience, it is communion that begs for, and in fact demands, head banging. James’ simultaneous tossing of his own lion’s mane in and of itself provides another layer of legitimacy. You cannot be a real rock star without also possessing truly excellent hair.
In interviews, James outlines the power of raw communion between band and audience, noting that it’s a form of visceral magic people need and an exchange the Internet can’t kill and savvy marketing can’t cultivate.
“That's the thing people don't realize,” James toldRolling Stonein 2013, “that all these people that you see rocket out of nowhere to superstardom: occasionally there's someone who's an awesome musician, but nine times out of 10, it's a fucking product and it's scientifically engineered to fucking move units.”
If you want to be a real one, you can’t sell out. Those are the rock rules. I don’t make them. Other cool facts about James: he’s into Springsteen (“It was like seeing the sun shine for the first time or something,” he said about the first time seeing The Boss); My Morning Jacket covered “Purple Rain” with insane verve and passion week after Prince died. Endearingly, James still uses borders on his Instagrams, based his debut solo LP, 2013’sRegions of Light and Sound of God,off a 1929 wordless graphic novel and says things like “I feel like the sky in my mind is bigger when I meditate.”
After catching that Springsteen set, James subsequently played as part of a 2014 Springsteen tribute alongside artists including Neil Young, Patti Smith, Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne and Sting. Minus some Mumfords, he was the youngest person on stage, the newest member of the old guard, the bridge between the past and the present and the reason to believe that the rock star archetype is alive and well, as long as Jim James breathes and has access to a guitar and a microphone.