Last week space wizard Jim James came down from the outer reaches of the Zebulon star system for a while to pay a visit to the good people of Washington, DC. As such visits from purveyors of magic can often go, it was a little weird, a little wonderful, at times a little bit frustrating, but in the end it was a cosmic, creative ride through one man’s tiny little corner of the cosmos.
Revered as one of the premier vocalists of his generation - scratch that - ANY generation, James is a frighteningly fearless musician who has driven the My Morning Jacket train to impossible heights with his savagely golden voice, seemingly endless enthusiasm, and unabashed love for what he does. It’s no exaggeration to say that MMJ is one of the best, if not the best, live bands performing today, so when James released his solo album Regions of Light and Sound of God earlier this year there was just as much cause for rejoicing as there was for trepidation. One part, no matter how integral, of a larger whole has historically rarely lived up to the wattage of the larger entity, and it was feared this would be no exception. As such, it’s always best to take these things with a grain of salt, to consider them more a public experiment rather than some standalone masterpiece, and in that context, the album, and the performance of it, were both wildly successful.
Al Spx of Cold Specks being FUCKING AMAZING, like she do“Doom Soul” purveyors Cold Specks kicked the evening off with an opening set that was part soul comminuting beauty, part morphine-esque jazz, and a little bit of hangover for good measure. The last time lead singer Al Spx and crew came through town, the experience was almost perfectly revelatory, so to see a slightly looser, but no less intense Spx on stage explaining that her enormous “security cape” was usually accompanied by “confidence wine too, but I’m really hungover” -- it was Jim James’ birthday week last week -- served to further humanize a set full of slow burning songs off her debut album I Predict A Graceful Expulsion. From the very first note of the set, Cold Specks caused audience members to dig deep within themselves to consider who they were, and what it all really means.
And then the wormhole opened.
Jim James and his touring band took the stage as the opening strains of “State Of The Art (A.E.I.O.U.)” floated out over an already amazed audience. As James crossed the front of the stage fans reached out with pointed fingers en masse until eventually their wishes were answered in HIGH “E.T.” fashion -- each outstretched fingertip was greeted for just a moment by James’s own. It was weird, it was magic, and it’s the very reason why the 9:30 Club was packed from front to back to see this remarkable performer do his thing.
Riding that buzz, James and crew tore through Regions in its entirety and in order. That’s a bold move for anyone touring behind an album, much less a SOLO album, but the James and his backing quartet managed to pull it off by amping up every dark corner of the record – there was an EPIC drum solo after only the third song – and turning it into a weird, and weirdly funky, vehicle for James’s voice, his saxaphone, and whatever other bombast the confines of this temporary pocket universe he and the band had created would allow. By the time the group reached “A New Life” – a track whose performance by James and The Roots has been immortalized forever on YouTube – the audience wasn’t just experiencing the show, they were swimming in its muted blues and reds, and nobody would come up for air until the final notes of “God’s Love To Deliver” finished the evening and the insanely blinking stage lights went down.
Presenting Regions of Light and Sound of God in its entirety could be construed as a statement of sorts – at the very least it displays James’ utmost faith in his material. A brief encore after such a set could be considered sugary sweet icing on a beautifully executed experimental cake. But when that encore morphed into an entire other set, it became hard not to recall the not-so-long-ago days when My Morning Jacket was rising out of the primordial jam band swamp. Focus is an entirely underrated skill for any artist, and without it things can just go on, and on, and on….
Aural exhaustion aside, if you came to see the space wizard what the hell else could you expect? Even a protracted encore that bled together as one GIANT EFFING JAM couldn’t rob the evening of its power. And nobody, not one single concertgoer, left that room untouched by the power that simply is Jim James. Weird, wonderful, and even a touch frustrating, it’s a ride you can’t help but want to take as often and as loudly as possible.
All photos by Joy Asico (firstname.lastname@example.org)