There’s a rarely discussed but subliminal understanding between music obsessives, the types that listen to dozens of records each year, the types that spend all their discretionary income on Ticketmaster-inflated concert tickets, the types that waste vast chunks of their time writing blogs for the similarly musically obsessed. And that understanding is that for all the hours spent sifting through the deluge of music produced each year, it will be all worth it for a few fleeting moments of transcendence. Those moments few and far between when one understands something that Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: the only evidence that there is a God is music. Those moments that you will inevitably tell your grandchildren about, starting with that old hoary Brandon Flowers-friendly-cliche: When I was young….
Indeed, last Sunday night at the fabled Fillmore, on a blustery San Francisco New Year’s Eve, My Morning Jacket, a five-piece from Louisville, Kentucky, produced one of those moments, with a stunning declaration of unmistakable brilliance. 3 Hours and 20 minutes of thrashing, primal and gorgeous rock and roll that left everyone in the audience struck with the unmistakable revelation that as long as they stomped this earth, they would never forget what they had just seen.
Now I know My Morning Jacket are far from a secret these days. They record for a major label, their last album, the critically-lauded Z was their best selling and first truly great start-to-finish record, (where previous attempts had been inconsistent, though often-spectacular). Not to mention heart-stopping 2006 performances at both Coachella and Bonnaroo that solidified their place as one of the finest bands in music. Hell, Cameron Crowe even cast them in Elizabethtown. But no amount of hype or previous brilliance could’ve prepared one for what the band had in store for New Year’s Eve, their third night in a three-day stand at the Fillmore, which marked the longest residency the band had ever played.
A crackling tension and the smell of marijuana smoke fluttered through the Fillmore, as the crowd grew nervous before the show, muttering rumors about what songs the band would play that evening and examining the colorful pastoral forest scrimps that had been tacked onto the walls of the venue, a contrast to the red velvet that had been there in previous days, No one knew exactly what to expect, but everyone could sense that something special was in store, as the Fillmore was completely decked out for the festivities, complete with white snowdrifts, pine trees and wooden fencing. At the top of the stairs leading into the venue was a rail car piled with gold. Behind the stage, immense murals of the woods and the night sky were visible, while the balconies were draped in faux snow and ice. On top of the gargantuan Fillmore speakers were a stuffed coyote, a few skulls, pine shrubs, boulders, old lanterns and skeletons.
Finally, at 10:20, the show began, as another colorful woodsy scrim descended in front of the stage. Gusts of fake snow fell on the crowd, the sound of wind howled through the air and finally, five figures crept on-stage, taking mincing steps as though they were braving the rugged elements. Dressed in Wild West attire, the band began miming to a recorded Oregon Trail-type dialogue about how cold and hungry they were. Sending off bassist Two-Tone Tommy to chop more wood for the fire, the band began conspiring about how to best kill and eat him. Weird, I know, but it would all make sense by the end of the performance. In the meantime, Two-Tone disappeared only to return clad in all all-white suit, descending a set of stairs attached to the rear of the stage, above which a banner was hung, with the word, “Heaven,” painted across it.
As Two Tone took his place, suddenly Jim James let off a round of circular and explosive guitar licks, drummer Patrick Hallahan broke into an Octopus-like assault on his drum kit, hair and arms whirring in a burst of John Bonham-like fury, Two Tone delivering fierce rumbling bass lines and the band itself unleashing a roaring forceful version of “One Big Holiday.” Unlike the set from two-days previous that had been bookended by Jim James mini-acoustic sets, the band let it be known how special tonight would be, with intensity at a non-stop feverish pitch from moment one. Hewing closely to a set-list that resembled Disc One of their recently released live album Okonokos (also recorded at the Fillmore), the first half of MMJ’s set covered familiar ground: a joyous rendition of “What a Wonderful Man” a spooky goose-bumps inducing “Gideon,” the blistering reggae-stomp of “Off the Record,” the mellow balladry of “Lowdown,” sounding epic next to the harsh guitars and hard drums of “Lay Low.”
Finally, The Hippies Get It Right
Concluding the first set with “They Ran” from 1999’s The Tennessee Fire, the band filed off-stage only to return a few minutes before midnight, with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in tow. Dressed in a bear suit, Newsom helped the band count down to the New Year, seemingly attempting to prove why San Francisco is either America’s greatest city or the first actual evidence of a metropolitan acid casualty. Finally, at the stroke of midnight, the crowd lapsed into pure rapture, a wild orgy of celebration, white balloons descending from the ceiling, falling into our eyes and faces. But everyone seemed too euphoric to even notice, embracing the person next to them, understanding that wherever we were at that moment seemed far better than anywhere else on this weird planet. As Martha & the Vandella’s “Heat Wave” blared over the loudspeakers and confetti fluttered from the ceiling, champagne toasts were hoisted in the air and one couldn’t help but feel powerful vibrations that 2007 would be much better than the long national hangover that was 06.
Suddenly, at the moment when one couldn’t help but wonder if a mere concert had the power to be this joyous, this magical, this life-affirming, the band broke into a faithful cover of Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” seemingly the only song that suited the moment. There were no traces of irony in the rendition. This was pure heart-felt soul, as Jim James’ ethereal vocals imbued the song with a new life, as though each note glowed with fantastic colors, streaks of bright purple and lush greens (or perhaps that was the weed smoke wafting through the air). Either way, one couldn’t help but be struck by the unmistakable notion that the only place to be was here, with My Morning Jacket on-stage hosting the festivities, bristling with soul and life, issuing glittering guitar licks into the warm air of the packed crowd.
The band continued its celebration with Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long,” backed by the brassy horns of Elvis Perkins in Dearland (who had opened for MMJ the previous evening). The rendition breathed new life into the Bar-Mitzvah classic and marked the first time in years that anyone has spoken of Lionel Richie without feeling the need to lambaste him for the parenting of Nicole. Two more covers followed back-to-back, a joyous rendition of Wham’s “Careless Whisper” and a bravado performance of Prince’s “Never Take the Place of Your Man,” that would’ve made the Purple One proud. But just as the concert was in danger of veering too dangerously into shmaltz-territory, the band broke out into a impossibly funky version of “Cobra” from their Chocolate and Ice EP, to the adulatory cheers of the crowd, amped up to see this rarely played but much loved 24 minute song.
Delving even deeper into its back catalogue, the band busted out “Phone Went West” and “Honest Man” from At Dawn and “The Bear” from The Tennessee Fire. After the slow stoned balladry of “Steam Engine” from It Still Moves, the band instinctively understood it was time to to ramp up the crowd’s energy with the Pink Floyd-esque psychedelia of “Wordless Chorus.” But perhaps the true highlight of the second half of the set was seeing Two-Tone Tommy unleash a cover of “Highway to Hell,” perfectly emulating Bon Scott’s wicked wails, singing with a primal and atavistic fury, as Jim James mugged for the audience, firing cap guns and trying to stifle laughter at his bandmate’s impeccable AC/DC rendition. Closing with the warm sing-a-along anthem “Mahgeeta,” every face in the crowd wore stunned smiles ,dancing their tired feet one last time as if to pay tribute to the brilliance that they had just witnessed. As the closing strains beat down on the audience, Two-Tone made his way to his bass rack to put his guitar to rest and reach for something else.
As the crowd wiped their eyes in disbelief that after nearly 3 and a half hours they were ready to keep going, Two Tone threw everyone for a loop and grabbed a shot gun. Shoulders back, striding confidently to the front of the stage, he confronted James, at which point another pre-recorded Oregon Trail/Western dialogue played. Suddenly, shots rang out and Two-Tone fake-murdered each member of the band, giving a morbid tinge to the previous joy of the proceedings. Surveying the carnage, Two-Tune mumbled said something about “ascending a stairway to heaven,” at which point the infamous Led Zeppelin track wailed on the sound system. One by one, he roused the band, now clad in white robes, and led them up the stairway to heaven that had been prepared for them. Waving their good-byes, with toothy smiles written across their faces, they bid the crowd good-night and made their way off-stage.
Filing out of the building with “Stairway to Heaven” still ringing in my head, I grabbed the poster designed specifically for the NYE show (apparently, the Fillmore gives away free posters for all sold-out shows), thinking about exactly how fitting of a conclusion it seemed. Watching My Morning Jacket on that cold night in San Francisco made me imagine what it must have been like to have seen a band like Zeppelin or The Who in their prime. If you haven’t seen My Morning Jacket yet, you’re missing out on the most brilliant band working today. Live, they exemplify how music should be, one of the few bands capable of demonstrating the raw transcendent power and potential of music itself. After all, it’s not that all that often that you find yourself stumbling around outside in the freezing wind, dazed and dazzled, filled with absolute certainty that you just witnessed the show of a lifetime.
MP3: My Morning Jacket-“All Night Long” (Lionel Richie Cover) from the 12/31/06 Performance at the Fillmore
MP3: My Morning Jacket-“Careless Whisper” (Wham/George Michael Cover) from the 12/31/06 Performance at the Fillmore
MP3: My Morning Jacket-“Highway to Hell” (AC/DC Cover) from the 12/31/06 at the Fillmore
MP3: My Morning Jacket-“Off the Record” from Okonokos