My Morning Jacket Delivers Transcendent 'Waterfall' Performance in Los Angeles: Live Review

Ethan Shvartzman
My Morning Jacket photographed at Mack Sennett Studios on May 7, 2015.

Thursday night could have gone a number of ways for My Morning Jacket

Performing the tracks off the band's new album The Waterfall at Los Angeles' Mack Sennett Studios for the first time live, it could have been a mess of piecing things together. As frontman Jim James himself said, the band is still really learning these songs, which they played in identical order to the recorded set. 

More likely, though, the Louisville quintet could have just failed to capture the audience for circumstances mostly out of their control. The hour-and-a-half-long set started at 7 p.m., as it was being live broadcast on KCRW and NPR, so the East Coast could listen along without nodding off. But prime concert time, that's not. And even with an open bar helping get the crowd in the mood, it was apparent early on the audience needed some convincing before the show could really take off. 

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But, instead, MMJ performed just as should maybe be expected (though not taken for granted) from one of rock's most esteemed bands for more than the past decade. And though this performance could have gone any number of ways, with a little warming up from the unseasonably brisk weather outside James and Co. succeeded on completely entrancing its audience, absorbing the few hundred people in attendance into these new songs and bringing that festival headlining performance they've become known for to this intimate event with flawless confidence and cool. 

"It's nice to play for actual humans filled with blood," said James late in the set, noting the band had only actually played these tracks live a few times before. 

The Waterfall is the band's first release in four years and its seventh studio record in about 15 years, so in a sense there's the sense of return in it. But in the audience Thursday night, there was hardly any reminiscing over the past or talk of longing for previous jams. Instead, there was full focus on this new batch of songs and often a waiting after each one for some explanation for further understanding of what was taking place in that very moment. 

Through the set's psychedelic range, from epic soaring highs to heavy lows, James spoke very little and performed with his eyes closed with no need for any standup-style showmanship. The most flair he put on was a black, loose-hanging jacket with intergalactic embroidery in electric colors of stars and eye-like figures. His frequent solos were as soulful as you'll hear in current rock, matched with his crooning that sometimes would duet with Carl Broemel's slide guitar dancing around the same octave, there is a transcendence in James' performance that has rightfully earned him a legion of dedicated fans and was on display this night as well. 

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"We built that song as a matrix for people to get lost in," said James early in the set, following "In Its Infancy (The Waterfall)." "We built it as a disorienting experience, but hopefully a very pleasurable one."

Later, "Spring (Among The Living)" and "Big Decisions" were obvious standouts for the audience. But closing tracks "Tropics (Erase)" and "Only Memories" were clearly impactful too -- the band transformed former from light acoustic fare into a hard-rock psych number and the latter manifested as a sexy soul track, clear in the crowd with at least one girl in green gyrating as her boyfriend in a Bad Brains T shirt caressed her hips along to James' tender playing. 

The band closed with a selection of fairly recent but older tracks: "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)," "Circuital" and "Victory Dance" from 2011's Circuital LP and "Down on the Bottom" from James' participation in the New Basement Tapes

"I've never given birth before, at least not in this lifetime," James said before the encore. "But as you may have heard other people say, or you may know yourselves, everyone has something that they love to do. When you finish doing something, it's compared to giving birth or it feels like it.... 

"It's funny to play these songs with you guys because they're so new to us and so exciting. We just made this thing and we're so proud of it. It's a little bit fragile. We don't know it yet, it was just born; we're just kind of learning to know it and that's fun for us, so I think there's something really human where when you first make it you don't know it yet, it's really an experience trying to remember what the f--- do I do on that one part or how many times do we do that other part? Those kinds of things that as you play a song more and more it takes on different dimensions and you remember to forget."

The session will re-air May 13 on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic. 


My Morning Jacket at Mack Sennett Studios, Los Angeles - May 7, 2015 set list:

1. Believe (Nobody Knows)
2. Compound Fracture
3. Like a River
4. In It's Infancy (The Waterfall)
5. Get the Point
6. Spring (Among the Living)
7. Thin Line
8. Big Decisions
9. Tropics (Erase Traces)
10. Only Memories Remain
 
Encore
11. Wonderful
12. Down on Bottom
13. Circuital
14. Victory Danc


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