If Louisville audiences didn’t have the bearded, bushy haired visage of Jim James already imprinted on their collective rock ‘n’ roll psyches, they might have wondered exactly who the artist was onstage last night at the Louisville Palace.
For sure, it was James, back in his hometown for Thanksgiving. But this was very much a workingman’s holiday as the singer, guitarist and song stylist was in the midst of a tour away from his more familiar artistic enterprise, My Morning Jacket. That explains, to a degree, what might have thrown anyone not versed in the music he makes under his own name. In My Morning Jacket, James is a conjurer, a rock star of epic and very mobile design. With the five member band he assembled last night, which used the Louisville indie trio Twin Limb as its backbone (as well as the evening’s opening act), James largely unplugged from rock ‘n’ roll to become the psychedelic soul crooner that regularly sings with low, reflective fervor on his new solo album, “Eternally Even.”
James and his band played all of the record’s eight tunes (nine if you count the fuzzed out, keyboard/percussion dominate prelude to “We Ain’t Getting Any Younger”). The most immediate difference between these songs and MMJ music, outside of the new record’s very outward preference for lo-fi psychedelia and Shuggie Otis-style soul, was the heavy de-emphasis on guitar. While James tried to calm any game changing fears by prefacing the show-opening “Hide in Plain Sight” with a jagged electric guitar break, such moments were sporadic. The bulk of the evening’s guitar chores went to Twin Limb’s Kevin Ratterman, whose playing worked off more ambient waves of processed sound rather than organic leads, solos or hooks. As such, newer works like “Same Old Lie” and “True Nature” favored a denser melodic fabric than the familiar MMJ drive while slightly older works from James’ 2013 solo debut record, “Regions of Light and Sound of God” (in particular, “A New Life”) opted for a more vintage pop appeal that, at times, recalled the massive musical constructions of Phil Spector.
All of this was appealing enough even though James appeared, from a performance standpoint, a little stymied. Free of heavy guitar detail, be prowled across the stage empty handed as he sang. Sometimes, the effect allowed him to dig into the more spiritual, introspective vibe of the new material. In other instances, he just seemed uncomfortable and lost.
But the ace in the hole of this two hour show was an extended encore segment that served as a compact but riveting journey through James’ music outside of MMJ. It began with the solo acoustic “Changing World,” pulled from the 2012 album “New Multitudes” that pinned new music to unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics. That bled into perhaps the evening’s most moving and unexpected number, an a cappella turned sing-a-long version of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are-A Changin’” that sounded frighteningly topical. James then regathered his band to revisit Monsters of Folk’s “Dear God,” the New Basement Tapes’ “Down on the Bottom” and two more “Regions of Light” songs, “Of the Mother Again” and “State of the Art,” with a cover of the Velvet Underground’s emancipating “I’m Set Free” spliced in between. This was where folk, soul and, yes, blazing rock ‘n’ roll crashed into each other, creating a remarkably full artistic profile where a Jacket was clearly not required.