My Morning Jacket has been riding a reputation as a world-class live band for almost half a decade now. At the end of October, though, they did something even the most accomplished bands aren’t crazy enough to attempt: they performed every last song in their catalog.
Most bands, especially those with extensive studio discographies, have several songs that they rarely or never play live. I long wondered for instance, why The Stones never play “Mother’s Little Helper” live, until I came across an interview with Charlie Watts explaining that “It’s never been any good. We used to try it live but it’s a bloody hard record to play.” In the same set of interviews, Jagger explained why they only play four songs off Exile on Main Street, their most critically acclaimed album: “when you start to play the other nineteen, you can’t, or they don’t work, or nobody likes them.”
Over a five-night stand at New York City’s Terminal 5, though, My Morning Jacket performed each of their five studio albums start to finish. Opening night, in the midst of working through their first album, Tennessee Fire, lead singer Jim James confessed to the crowd just how it felt to try something so daunting.
“Man,” he vented, “this is so nerve-wracking. Half of these songs we’ve never played live before. We’re just trying not to screw up, so, bear with us.”
I was lucky enough to attend two of the five shows, and can tell you first hand that very little was screwed up. If anything, they were two of the tightest, well-rehearsed performances the band has ever put together. In both performance and grandiosity, it was epic even by MMJ standards—and that’s saying something. Jim did his self-deprecating best to play it down, but that five-day stand was no goof. It was an attempt to do something indelible.
The bigger question, and the one I wrestled with for most of the summer, was why the big project? Why now?
One very likely reason resided at the back center of Terminal 5’s long rectangular floor area—an extensive, stand-alone soundboard setup manned by a cool-headed producer, which was not T5’s standard setup, and was clearly special for the shows. In addition, the space was peppered with all sorts of extra audio and visual recording equipment. At the very least, we can expect some sort of release of this live material in the next twelve months. At best, perhaps a full live-box set and documentary.
If anything, though, that just makes the question of “why?” a bigger one. When MMJ announced the New York shows mid-summer, I was immediately struck by a combination of facts:
1. I could find no rumors of a new album in the works.
2. Jim James and guitarist Carl Broemel were heavily involved in side/solo projects.
3. The set lists from all 2010 shows were broad ranging, more like live anthologies, including the Chicago show I attended in August, which Jim treated like a fan tribute.
4. The band now planned to perform an actual live anthology over five days, and then had no shows scheduled after.
I didn’t take a conspiracy theorist to conclude that something was up. This was end of an era behavior from a band that could, with zero irony, call its last decade an era. What arenas were left to fill? What musical whims were left to indulge after Z and Evil Urges? And what better cherry on top of one of the decade’s great live careers than to blow out their entire discography on one New York City stage, record it for posterity, and ride the reverb into the rock annals? At the very least, it reeked of “hiatus.”
Fortunately, as the hype built up around big project, the band finally started to tip its hand about work on a new album.
Apparently, they are indeed working on a new album, one they hope to release in Spring 2011. It does seem though, from statements like “going back to our roots” and “laid back” that the band is making a conscious break from the super-sized trajectory they’ve taken over the last few years. And if statements like that don’t make it clear they’re not interested in making big singles again, the fact they’re recording it in a Louisville church should erase all doubt. After seeing their first two albums performed live, though, I can’t imagine better news.