During SXSW, Austin, Texas is the center of the indie-rock universe, overrun with singers and bands deserving of wider attention and a fair payday but, with the major labels in free fall, more defensive than ever about creative purity and corporate sabotage. The headlining set by indie-scene graduates My Morning Jacket at the Austin Music Hall, on the second night of SXSW ’08, proved that they became arena-worthy and pop-smart without selling out or diluting their Southern-gothic boom.
Like >R.E.M. the night before, My Morning Jacket devoted nearly half of their generous set — sixteen songs and four long encores over close to two hours — to their imminent new album, Evil Urges, including the heavy funk and wah-wah city of “Highly Suspicious” and the disco-pulse Armageddon of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Pt. 2.” The record features singer-guitarist-songwriter Jim James in a bold, R&B frame of mind, unleashing his inner Earth Wind and Fire — particularly his strong, piercing falsetto — over oceans of guitar fuzz and John Bonham-thunderclap drums, and it was all there, at maximum volume, on stage.
James has been going forward into the past for some time. “Wordless Chorus” from 2005’s Z, featured slick sheets of storefront-church harmonies over a stuttering-calypso rhythm. The band beefed up the elephant-walk reggae time of “Off the Record” with lion-roar guitar quotes from “Hawaii Five-O” and furious, dueling breaks by James and guitarist Carl Broemel.
But My Morning Jacket are an R&B band the way Led Zeppelin made mountains out of the beats and meters of Sixties New Orleans singles and James Brown records. “Aluminum Park,” from the new album, opened with jackhammer riffing and blew up into nuclear garage rock. And much of the set’s monster-guitar drama came from the band’s 2003 major-label debut, It Still Moves. What once sounded like Lynyrd Skynyrd-to-the-moon — and that is a high compliment — is now even bigger in heave and bolder in color and texture. At the Austin Music Hall,”Run Thru” was a Kentucky “Kashmir” and “Whole Lotta Love” combined: a slow, heavy riff; a hellbent middle of unison-guitar excitement; and a hard u-turn back to that messy, majestic grind. You could keep biting your nails, waiting for a Zeppelin-reunion tour. Or you can see My Morning Jacket, here and now, make their own Physical Graffiti in your face.