The first time I heard Band of Horses, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t My Morning Jacket. So, the pairing of the two bands seemed destined to happen. It’s certainly a marketing coup, since fans of My Morning Jacket seem to differ from Band of Horses fans only in the length of their beards. I can’t help but be skeptical of Band of Horses, but they really impressed me. To put a positive spin on it, you don’t have to do much that’s original if your songwriting is solid and your energy connects with willing listeners. So I give them credit for picking a mostly lively setlist and playing the shit out it. They come off a lot rougher and tougher in person than they do on record, though singer Ben Bridwell is still kind of whiny for my taste. Still, standouts like “Is There a Ghost” and “Islands on the Coast,” which both let the band cut loose and make the best use of his Bridwell’s range, had most of the crowd pumping their fists while the faithful down front started jumping around. They closed things out with a soulful cover of Them Two’s “Am I a Good Man” that once again showcased the band, especially keyboardist Ryan Monroe.
Set change! Gone were Band of Horses’ pastoral tapestries and stuffed owls, replaced by My Morning Jacket’s strings of lights and stuffed bears. I saw MMJ a couple of times when they were first breaking into the mainstream, about eight years ago. Other than the size of the venues, the biggest difference is definitely the emergence of Jim James as legitimate frontman. At the LC, James took to the stage looking flamboyant in a well-decorated, regal blue coat (his morning jacket?), which appeared clasped with some kind of brooch. He wasn’t halfway into the first song before he marched to the front of the stage to headbang with the screaming fans. He’s definitely embraced the need for a spotlight-stealer and allowed his onstage persona to blossom into something befitting the band’s epic, hard rock gestures. And they’ve got ’em all: the headbanging, the massive riffs (“One Big Holiday,”) the sing-alongs (“Holdin’ Onto Black Metal”) the guitar solos, the Flying V, the acoustic one (“Hopefully”) and even the one where the guitarist sings (“Carried Away”). And here’s a bit of praise you won’t read very often: the lighting was absolutely amazing. That’s right lighting dude, if you’re somehow reading this, please know your work was awesome and somebody noticed.
Of course, MMJ are known for their lengthy sets, and this was no exception. So much the better, since they have so many different modes to show off. What’s that joke about the weather in Ohio? Wait five minutes and you’ll see another side of Jim James. I especially appreciated that the set drew from all six of their studio albums, so we got great surprises like the non-stop transition from the a driving “I’m Amazed” (from 2008’s Evil Urges) to the reggae-tinged “Phone Went West” (from 2001’s At Dawn). Between the rock anthems, the rabid fans, and the super tight band, I found myself wondering if this was what it was like to see someone like Deep Purple in their heyday. Compared to a lot of bands I’ve seen lately, this was certainly a more visceral experience, and it was refreshing to see some guys who are just really fucking good at playing their instruments together. At the very least, it reminded me of a really loud Phish show. I even saw a couple of dudes with tiny microphones on huge stands trying to get the people around them to stop talking. Wow, is tape-trading still a thing?