The band played two shows at Dillion Amphitheater and two more gigs at Red Rocks.
My Morning Jacket’s four-night run through the Rocky Mountain State featured deep cuts and long jams, but more than anything, the clearest sign yet that old wounds have healed. The Kentucky-born quintet played two nights at the Dillon Amphitheater, an hour west and 3,000 feet higher than Denver, followed by two shows at the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheater to wrap things up.
Their last performance at Red Rocks was in the summer of 2019, marking their return from an indefinite hiatus which we’ve since learned was as close to a breakup as the band has been in over 20 years. of history. Vocalist Jim James referenced this on stage, citing it as one of the many reasons why Red Rocks, or The Birth Canal as he has called it for years, is sacred ground to them.
With four shows split between two venues, each was treated as a two-night run with no rehearsals. Although there was some crossover of material between the two sites, they each featured their own extended rarities and jams and throughout their time in Colorado repeatedly winked and nodded to the fact that it was a four night race in the spirit.
A major highlight of these shows was how the setlists were crafted. Between 2015 and 2017, their shows became stereotypical, and while the music itself didn’t suffer, it took some of the magic out of the experience of seeing them multiple times. Hearing “Victory Dance” as a set opener was nice after the 2011 release Circuit, but five years later it became obsolete. While “One Big Holiday” is as much of a signature song as they get, knowing that it would shut down nearly every set does nothing more than help the flow.
That said, at both Dillon and Red Rocks, “One Big Holiday” served as a mid-run banger and three of the four shows walked out the door with unconventional openings like “Gideon”, “I Will Sing You Songs,” and “Hanging On to Black Metal.” “Gideon” features one of the fiercest howls in rock music’s last 25 years, and using it to open the set was like announcing to the audience that Jacket would be jumping the preliminaries and would go straight there for the next two and a half hours.
Jacket aren’t a conventional jam band by definition, and most of the material they play regularly changes little from night to night, so a big part of what makes each live show unique is the way which they develop the setlist. Their material is hugely eclectic, spanning territory from country and folk to R&B, funk/metal fusion, reggae and hard rock, and how they order their setlist plays a big part in determining specify the type of experience their audience is going to have.
Between unexpected opening numbers, a plethora of rarities from their first two albums, and expansive high-level improvisation, Jacket demonstrated to Colorado that the days of staying close to the script are behind them and that they are committed to make full use of the breadth of their back catalog to make every show truly special.
On the improv front, one of the big stories that came out of this run was their final rendition of “Phone Went West” on night two at Dillon. But perhaps the highlight of the entire run was their rendition of “Dondante” on the Red Rocks’ debut show.
Jacket performed a now-famous version of the closing track from 2005 Z which ran nearly half an hour in their 2019 Red Rocks return to the stage, but length doesn’t equal quality and the 2022 Red Rocks release might take the cake. Between the song’s single verse and chorus, the act took advantage of the long melody’s loose compositional structure and took things in a direction they had never been before. The jam featured brand new melodic themes that they concocted on the fly and immediately circled the wagons around which fans continued to report sounding like a completely different song.
Another highlight of the race was how easily Jim James seemed to let his guard down. The enigmatic frontman has long been defined by his extraordinary onstage charisma, which towards the second half of the act’s storyline was increasingly contrasted by introverted tendencies he exhibited onstage through the use sunglasses and capes. But these days, he’s removed the armor to show the utter vulnerability of his eyes during their most heartbreaking material.
On songs like ‘Wordless Chorus’, ‘Victory Dance’ and ‘Touch Me I’m Going to Scream’ where he doesn’t use a guitar, James often uses the cape to peek-a-boo with the crowd in a playful and endearing, but simultaneously increasing the barrier he had built between himself and his audience. Seeing him perform these fully exposed songs showed a newfound comfort in letting the real James Olliges Jr. shine through his frontman Jim James persona to bare himself.
It’s easy to see the two-year hiatus between 2017 and 2019 as a turning point for My Morning Jacket, but as far as fans have speculated, the gap isn’t the best marker to differentiate the band’s eras. Phish fans easily differentiate the 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0 eras as being separated by their post-Big Cypress hiatus from 2000 to 2002 and again from their 2004 breakup to their 2009 reunion. Applying these standards to Jacket, if a distinction is to be made between MMJ 1.0 and 2.0, that mark should be set in 2008 when James fell from the stage and suffered serious musculoskeletal injuries.
Before his downfall, he was a physically fierce performer who thrashed and moaned on stage like a wild horse. In a 2015 interview with JamBase, he explained, “[Something I didn’t use to do was] just trying to stay still. I feel like I couldn’t sit still. I was filled with something that made me want to hit my head and jump all the time…”
After recovering from those injuries, he was no longer the same performer and never has been. Where the band relied less on a theatrical display of performative energy, Jacket 2.0 paid greater attention to their instrumental prowess and multi-faceted approach to create a more improvisational and experimental musical identity within the framework live. A good example of this is the extent to which James increasingly incorporated two-handed tapping into longer songs like “Dondante”, “Steam Engine”, and “Phone Went West”. Even since their performances last March at One Big Holiday, it’s a technique that James has definitely improved.
Jacket 1.0 was a force of nature as part of the live that showcased physicality to their performances that you couldn’t take your eyes off of. In the 2.0 era, there has been a greater emphasis on instrumental exploration and curating each performance as a unique concert experience in itself that encourages fans to attend multiple shows in a row.
Whether you just did the Red Rocks shows or attended both at Dillon before, the dividends paid for investing in the Colorado race were plentiful. Between the deep cuts, the inspired jams, the creative choice of openings, or seeing band members at peace with each other and with themselves, across four shows in Colorado, it couldn’t be clearer. that it is an exceptional moment to invest as a fan.
It’s tempting to call this peak Jacket 2.0 but that wouldn’t be accurate. Their ceiling crosses the roof and the high water mark keeps rising.
Audio recorded by Alex Leary
August 23 – Dillon
August 24 – Dillon
August 26 – Red Rocks
August 27 – Red Rocks