By Josh Herwitt //
If you want to know what’s been on Jim James’ mind lately, just listen to his new album Eternally Even. The frontman and primary songwriter for My Morning Jacket released his sophomore solo LP last month just prior to Election Day, and it’s by far his most political effort yet in his ongoing quest to promote worldwide peace, love and equality.
In that regard, you might think James Edward Olliges, Jr. sounds like a modern-day hippie. Sure, Jerry Garcia is one of his many heroes (at least according to this Instagram post), but with all the turmoil at home and abroad right now, James’ message remains a particularly important one that each of us should apply to our own lives. Because no matter what your political beliefs are, we can all agree that the world needs more compassion and empathy, right? In the new world order of President-elect Donald Trump, it certainly couldn’t hurt.
But for as inspiring as James’ lyrics are on Eternally Even, it’s his songwriting that shines through brightest. While his debut solo album Regions of Light and Sound of God had its moments, it lacked the cohesiveness that the Louisville native’s latest studio work offers. From the opening notes of “Hide in Plain Sight” to the closing title track, the record flows seamlessly from start to finish — and no song embodies that better than the two-part “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger” (sadly, we aren’t). Neither is James, and yet, at age 38, he has become one of the most prolific and gifted songwriters today. Between his work in MMJ, indie-folk supergroup Monsters of Folk (with Conor Oberst and M. Ward) and the Dylan-inspired collective known as The New Basement Tapes (featuring Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and more), it’s incredible that James even has the time to take on another side project, let alone make an album that sounds as good as Eternally Even does in “a couple weeks” from what he told LA Weekly.
James is in rare company these days, amid a dying breed of guitar-rock gods like Jack White and Josh Homme who are not only capable of playing anything on six strings, but also on a myriad of instruments. And while Eternally Even feels in some ways like an opportunity for him to finally experiment more with keyboards, James made sure to remind his fans at the 90-year-old Orpheum Theatre last Friday that shredding is still a priority. Performing in his new hometown after officially moving to LA this year, he assumed the role of lead singer for much of the show as he and his bandmates from Twin Limb (also opening for James on this tour) played all of Eternally Even and half of Regions. But propped up by a stand onstage the whole time was James’ black Gibson axe, and you knew at some point during a two-hour set that he was going to unload some sick riffs like we have become accustomed to seeing from him at Jacket shows.
In a similar vein, James’ propensity for live covers extends far outside the realm of MMJ, and at the Orpheum, we were treated to his own renditions of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free” and Parliament’s “Come in Out of the Rain”. He even gave a nod to the New Multitudes, which James formed alongside Jay Farrar, Will Johnson and Anders Parker to commemorate Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. But no cover resonated more with the crowd than The New Basement Tapes’ “Down on the Bottom”, as James demonstrated why his guitar playing can transfix a near-religious experience for celebrity fanboys like Christopher Mintz-Plasse (who plays the character “McLovin” in the 2007 movie “Superbad”) only a few rows away from me.
As he has done for most of this tour, James wrapped things up with a forewarning about our growing dependence on technology in the form of “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)”, ripping into one last guitar solo to the sound of cheers from the audience. It was the perfect way to cap off a performance that mixed James’ psychedelic tendencies — his knack for getting weird, if you will — and his undying appreciation for soul music. That sonic marriage ultimately lays a lot of the groundwork for Eternally Even, with James paying homage, whether purposely or not, to his other musical heroes, be it Marvin Gaye or Bill Withers. And although James may not be quite there yet as far as stature goes, we just might look back on him in the same way one day.
Hide in Plain Sight
Know Til Now
Same Old Lie
In the Moment
A New Life
The World’s Smiling Now
Here in Spirit
I’m Set Free (The Velvet Underground cover)
We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Pt. 1
We Ain’t Getting Any Younger Pt. 2
Changing World (New Multitudes cover)
Of the Mother Again
Come in Out of the Rain (Parliament cover)
Down on the Bottom (The New Basement Tapes cover)
State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)