TVD Live: Jim James
at the 9:30 Club, 4/30

Jim James skips out onto the stage, bathed in a soft purple light. A huge LED-lit sunburst glows in a rainbow of colors behind him, illuminating the crowd. Hundreds of fans have gathered to see the scruffy My Morning Jacket frontman, who’s clad in a spiffy dark suit and his signature mess of a mane. James and his band break into their opener, “State of the Art (A-E-I-O-U),” and fans freak, stretching their hands out to touch index fingers E.T.-style with the singer.

For years I’ve heard friends and critics rave about MMJ, but, for no good reason, I had never spent time actually listening to the band. So in the days leading up to the 9:30 Club show, I naively prepped by frantically attempting to jump aboard the bandwagon. After jetting through their most recent albums, in addition to some Monsters of Folk, another of his projects, I felt fully ready and excited to see James in all his folky glory. I thought I had done my homework.

But standing in the pulsing crowd on that Tuesday evening, I had never felt so unprepared.

Within seconds I registered that, in fact, James’s solo work, most recently his album Regions of Light and Sound of God, is quite different. With a drummer, keyboardist and another band member on laptop, James’s solo work has a very prominent electro bent, neglecting the folk rock vibe altogether for layers upon layers of reverbed vocals and synth. Many songs seemed completely devoid of hook-and-chorus structure, instead stretching out into long and spacey jams.

My ignorance immediately translated into confusion (this guy’s going on tour with Bob Dylan?), but my insecurities were assuaged when I realized that I wasn’t alone: a good portion of the audience, though intrigued, seemed antsy to hear something they knew. I’ll admit it—for the first time in my intimate relationship with the 9:30 Club, I relocated to the back of the club, a safer distance from the blaring speakers. I tried to reconcile the unwavering words of praise I had heard about MMJ with what was actually taking place before me.

But none of that mattered to Jim James, who was soaring into another universe, alternating between electric guitar, sax, and general bopping around the stage.

After more than hour of electro-jamming, the band left the stage. When he came back alone a few minutes later, I thought it was for an encore—wrong again. Acoustic guitar in hand, he pulled a pretty shocking 180 and launched into an entire second set, kicking off with Willie Nelson’s “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away,” a nod to the prolific singer in honor of his 80th birthday. The crowd perked up, sang along, and cheered wildly. I moved closer. And I secretly wished the whole show had been this way.

He spoke to the re-captivated crowd, signaling that the ode to Willie was a sign of more great things to come. The audience hit a high point when he moved into a duo of acoustic MMJ songs, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” and “Hopefully.” Both had the crowd singing along, and someone even shushed a cluster of tipsy kids by the bar. I finally felt like I was in the right place.

The latter half of the second set was dedicated to Monsters of Folk (“His Master’s Voice,” “Losin’ Yo Head”) before he closed out with New Multitudes’ “Changing World.”

There’s no denying that the two sets could not have been more different. But, ever the optimist, I have to say that the clash definitely kept things interesting. And being that James’s entire solo repertoire includes less than 12 songs, the night felt like a sort of inside peek into an experimental, emergent, and rarely seen side of the singer. While a majority of the audience likely showed up to revel in the sounds of My Morning Jacket (guilty), they seemed genuinely stoked to enjoy Jim James, and his unmatchable tresses, in another light.

Photos: Richie Downs

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