RALEIGH – Jim James, psychedelic-shaman frontman of the Kentucky rock band My Morning Jacket, has this...thing he does with his voice that’s rather remarkable. It’s a special effect that’s hard to describe, because phrases like “high lonesome wail” seem inadequate. And it’s not even something as simple as projection. It’s almost the opposite of that, in fact.
When James really lets loose, it feels as if he somehow opens up a hole in the universe and lets it pour through his voice, producing a howl that seems to emanate from the coldest, furthest reaches of deep space. To his credit, James doesn’t overdo this effect. But when he breaks it out, it’s amazing.
Sunday night found My Morning Jacket playing the final date of its tour at the Downtown Raleigh Amphitheater. Between the headliner and opening act Band of Horses, it was a generous dose of American roots rock from the beard-and-gimmie-cap division. The hairy part of that description especially goes for James. You heard him fine; but between his thick beard and mane of hair, it was almost impossible to get a good look at his face.
Following an agreeable hour from Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket came onstage accompanied by waves of trippy ambient sound effects and kicked off with “Rollin’ Back,” a song that has evolved a great deal since the 2003 studio version. It’s still as spacy as ever, but with lots more of a hard-rock pulse.
Classic-rock overtones were definitely the order of the day, especially on the songs from My Morning Jacket’s most recent effort “Circuital” – an album whose overall vibe is reminiscent of The Who circa “Quadrophenia.” Over the course of two-plus hours, the band variously evoked Pink Floyd (with lasers throbbing at seizure-inducing paces), the Grateful Dead and that fictional band from the ’70s-rock movie “Almost Famous.”
Jerry Garcia, the late Grateful Dead icon, would have loved this bunch. Completing the Dead-friendly feeling, there were a few “twirlers” dancing about in the crowd, acting out My Morning Jacket’s extended jams. For all the instrumental fireworks, however, almost every song proceeded at a deliberatepace. The occasional jam that accelerated to anything faster than mid-tempo was rare enough to be startling.
With the songs flowing into each other seamlessly, there was no between-song chatter to speak of. Underrated as a guitarist, James got in some pretty good licks on his Flying V guitar and the entire band played quite well. But James’ voice was still the main draw, especially when he’d hit that high, spooky place and evoke choirs of unearthly angels.
It even worked at quieter volumes, like the acoustic encore version of “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” with Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell out for a vocal cameo. The rest of Band of Horses also joined the headliner onstage during the encore for a rousing cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity.”
But it wasn’t.