From the front door of New York's McKittrick Hotel to the intimate theater inside where Jim James, singer-guitarist of My Morning Jacket, performed the songs from his new solo album last night, it was a long trip through zigzagging barely-lit hallways, several flights of stairs and a couple of lounges, one with a blues trio holding forth. The McKittrick is actually a former warehouse-mega-club space and the site of Sleep No More, an interactive production of Shakepeare's Macbeth in which audience members roam the premises, sworn to silence and wearing commedia dell'arte masks, as the action unfolds from room to room.
James' show was a comparatively straightforward experience. The main set was his entire record, Regions of Light and Sound of God (ATO), played in its entirety, in sequence. The album is largely a one-man marvel; James wrote and produced it and played nearly everything on it. But he is touring with a backing quartet – bassist Alana Rocklin, keyboard players Dan Dorff and Kevin Ratterman (the latter on some guitar) and James' drummer on the record, David Givan – who added a surprising, direct aggression to the album's cream-synth textures and echo-drenched spirituality. The effect was especially fitting at the McKittrick, where James came onstage wearing one of those masks after participating in Sleep No More earlier in the evening, as if he'd just walked out of one strange, consuming dream into another.
Prayers and Distortion
Regions of Light is a record of deceptive weight; its attraction unfolds over repeated exposure, as the pop and vintage soul hooks hovering in the electronics and James' pleading falsetto creep to the front-and-center. Live, that happened right away, with an uplifting emphasis on the hip-hop urgency embedded in "State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)" – once it got out of that lonesome-minimalist piano intro – and "Of the Mother Again." This show was only James' third with his new band, but the boom and surge mostly implied on the album were full and sustained, especially as the songs went long with jamming passages that suggested a My Morning Jacket gig with more Seventies cosmic funk.
There is virtually no guitar-hero action on Regions of Light. But James made welcome, excessive compensation tonight in the open spaces trailing "A New Life" and "Actress." He also blew up the monastic-hosanna rapture of the album's closing track, "God's Love to Deliver," into fuller psychedelic payoff, wrenching jagged exclamations of guttural fuzz from his guitar, blowing dazed breaths of alto saxophone against the band's firm thump and drone.
A mini-set of encores ended the same way, with a heavy-tripping Kraftwerk charge through My Morning Jacket's live showpiece "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream" (both parts). James also covered a couple of antique R&B valentines – Fats Waller's "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" and the 1944 Ink Spots-Ella Fitzgerald hit "I'm Making Believe" – as charming supper-club kitsch. Then he played a few other My Morning Jacket songs, adapted for the new band. One, "Wordless Chorus" from 2005's Z, didn't sound much different from the version on that record. It was ecstatic devotion swimming through echo, affirming that James has been on this path to enlightment all along.