Four Nights At The Beacon Theatre With My Morning Jacket
On Saturday, 11/28, My Morning Jacket completed a sold-out four-night run at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre. (The preceding nights were Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, with a night off in the middle for Thanksgiving.) As it goes with any of MMJ’s multi-night runs, these were set to be special shows. The band didn’t repeat a single song across the four nights — which means, if you’re the sort of fan who felt like going to all four nights, you heard almost everything you could possibly want to hear them play. The Beacon shows were further installments in the band’s Spontaneous Curation Series, through which fans can request songs via Twitter and the fan club forums, so that they wind up helping the band curate setlists loaded with rarities; some songs that appeared last week hadn’t been played in several years. The comprehensiveness of it all was reminiscent of another several-night NYC experience, when MMJ took over Terminal 5 for five nights in 2010 and played each of their (then-five) albums in their entirety, with encores full of B-sides and covers. They did just about everything they’d recorded up until that point at those shows, and even with two more albums in the catalog now, they got pretty close again with the Beacon shows. But, this time, it was all scrambled together — folky deep cuts from the first few albums alongside material from their excellent new album, The Waterfall. This was the end of their tour, and the Beacon run felt like a giant, all-encompassing celebration.
The Beacon wound up being a perfect place for this stuff. Situated on the Upper West Side, it’s been around since 1929, and has that old American glamor to it — 20th century gilded, lined with statues. The sort of thing people don’t build anymore. And for those four nights, it existed for MMJ, the room clearly packed with diehards. (I don’t find myself at a lot of shows at the Beacon, but I’d imagine this has to be one of the only bands where the theater is cool with people smoking weed inside left and right — like, to the point where, when you went back into the theater from the lobby, you were greeted by a jungle fog haze that perpetually hung in the interior’s heavy humidity.) As a venue, the Beacon has a majesty and cavernous quality well suited to MMJ’s anthemic sprawl, a space ideal for Jim James’ massive voice to do its thing and fill the room. When all the elements aligned just right — a more Pink Floyd-esque passage here, trippy lighting coating the Beacon’s idiosyncratic interior — it felt like you were outside of New York and specific notions of time and place. That’s what a good show is supposed to do, and that’s what almost any MMJ show does, but it becomes that much more severe when you’re along for the ride of a multi-night run. It’s an experience that leaves you a little dazed when you walk back out into Manhattan afterwards, blinking and wondering how you can get back inside that other space.
These were my 24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th times seeing the band, but even with a wide frame of reference, these were unique shows. MMJ opened Tuesday’s show with “At Dawn,” just about the most cinematic way to kick off a four-night experience like this. What followed was one of the strangest MMJ sets I’ve ever seen, overall leaning on meditative slow-burners throughout, eventually building to a mini-blowout towards the end (“Holdin’ On To Black Metal” closed the main set, while “Dancefloors” and “Gideon” were the one-two finale of the encore that prompted someone near me to yell “Yeah, religion!”). When MMJ have two or more nights in one city, they tend to do this — tailor each night so that there is a specific character to the set, and have the nights play off each other. Friday’s show started off in a similarly slowed-down and contemplative mode, but Tuesday still felt like it was built as a prologue to the whole experience, which inevitably gathered intensity as the weekend approached, as more of the heavy-hitters appeared in the set, and, as you walked into the final night, you realized all the massive fan favorites that were left. As for that final night, they opened with “Victory Dance” into “Compound Fracture” into “Evil Urges” into “Evelyn Is Not Real,” which is some of the most take-no-prisoners shit I’ve ever seen them do early in a show. Otherwise, they’d saved up “The Way That He Sings,” and they closed the main set with the gorgeous pairing of “Smokin From Shootin” and “Steam Engine.” Then they closed the whole run with the ludicrous encore of “Wordless Chorus” into “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream, Pt. 2″ into “Cobra” into “Run Thru” into, of course, “One Big Holiday.”
MMJ shows can be a very communal thing and this is always better experienced with friends. I had a ticket for myself each night, and that was it — but I also wound up finding friends each night. This is the personal element that makes seeing this band such a special experience for me: after deciding to go to Mexico for their inaugural One Big Holiday destination festival in early 2013, I’ve developed groups of friends I knew initially just by being fans of MMJ and seeing them at shows. I’ve never been a part of a fanbase like that. The fervent “I’ve seen them dozens of times and have friends I know purely through these experiences” brand of fandom is something more common in the jam-band world, the lineage from Deadheads to people who follow Phish. And it’s probably a contributing factor to MMJ being (somewhat erroneously) lumped in with that world occasionally. But MMJ have grown into a stranger group than they’re given credit for, and their warped brand of classicist rock, with one foot in the indie world, makes them a strange beast in this instance: It’s hard for me to think of another band of their age, in that world, that evokes this kind of devotion. I ran into friends from Mexico in the lobby, we snuck around inside the theater so we could sit near each other; one of the friends I made in Mexico drove up from D.C. for the Wednesday night show. If, like me, you were stuck in NYC with a ton of work over Thanksgiving when everyone else was traveling and visiting their families, four MMJ shows is definitely one way to make the week feel better. But catching up with an extended, adopted family like friends within a fanbase cements that.
At one point, I was the 15-year-old kid seeing MMJ for the first time, and it wasn’t even their own show. They were opening for Pearl Jam, which oddly enough seems to be a very common thread with how people got into this band. (Throughout the Beacon run, someone kept yelling “Drop the leash!,” a piece of ephemeral Pearl Jam trivia referring to when their own insanely fervent fanbase was campaigning to get the band to play “Leash” in the ’00s; it was amazing how many people seemed to get this joke at another band’s show.) Ten years later, now I’m one of those guys who, you could say, maybe got a little too invested. But at nearly 30 shows in, I’ll meet people outside beforehand and feel some kind of genuine excitement for the stranger who just told me they’re about to see MMJ for the first time. On Saturday, I spoke to a woman who had flown up from Florida with her husband; they were in NYC for less than 48 hours, just for the show, which would be her first. A jam-band fan from Staten Island started talking to us, as well as a guy who straight-up lit a joint on the crowded sidewalk outside the Beacon. I never used to talk to anyone at shows. Mexico taught me differently — one of the best things about MMJ shows is the people you meet.
As for the band themselves, they didn’t do much talking over the course of the week. James introduced Strand Of Oaks’ Tim Showalter after the latter came out to sing “Wonderful (The Way That I Feel)” with the band on Wednesday, the night Strand Of Oaks opened. (Showalter also recently covered that song.) One of the only other times James said anything was toward the end of the main set, when he spoke about the shootings in Paris, the Eagles Of Death Metal interview that brought everyone in MMJ to tears, and asked the crowd to join him in a moment of silence for Paris. They then covered the Eagles Of Death Metal’s “I Love You All The Time,” a song the band urged other artists to cover with the promise that they would donate the publishing money to victims of the Paris attacks. The moment of silence was the one solemn instance in the long party of the four shows. It lent more gravity to the whole experience than even the most dramatic chorus swell — to think about this very special place and thing that MMJ creates, and that it was in this kind of space where that happened, the kind of space where people are supposed to be able to go get away from horrible things in the real world.
James didn’t say anything else for the rest of that final night, besides thanking the crowd for wanting to hang out with the band for more than one night a week. He never says much; at this point, the band’s sets take off on their own. And from the tribute to Paris onward, the final night of the Beacon run proceeded triumphantly, hitting that insane encore and marking the ineffable bond this band has with their audience. I know the final moments well by now: the ringing opening riff of “One Big Holiday,” tightening and tightening until everything crashes in. It always marks the real, final moment of that weird week you spent going to the same part of town every night, to see the same band. There are few other songs I’ve seen that go over this way live; you will see an entire crowd screaming along, you will see middle-aged men losing their shit. But it’s always a little bittersweet, too — for me, at least. I have to focus and not think that we’ll be walking out the doors back into the real world in five minutes. This time around, I didn’t get that same bittersweet feeling, though. That riff is elliptical, spiraling around itself and eventually unraveling and then coming back into the compact patterns again at the end of the song. This time, it sounded like the end of things, as it always does. But it also sounded like moments that haven’t happened yet, like the next time I’ll be standing in a room watching this band, amongst friends, hearing that same elliptical piece of music calling out.