My Morning Jacket front man Jim James may be a rock star now, but he took the stage at Chicago's Auditorium Theater last night still looking the part of Louisville's town weirdo. In a too-tiny black trenchcoat, white furry knee-high boots and and a flowery flowing scarf, he looked like a high-school goth kid who'd raided his step-mom's closet before hitting the stage. The band launched into "Victory Dance", the opening track from their latest, Circuital, splaying it out into a monsterous, prog-opus that made the recorded version seem wan by comparison. James stomped around the stage, a glowing sampler strung around his neck, punctuating his howls with what sounded like an eagle's screech.
If anyone was doubting (and who would, really?) that MMJ could make the leap from being "the jam band for people who don't like jam bands" to something bigger – the band has done it. While Circuital is the natural progression of the band arcing towards a sound ever more delicate and huge, it's the work of a band that is (smartly) anticipating a growing audience. These songs are stadium huge; My Morning Jacket are now entering gods-of-thunder territory. Though their fans were happy to sing along and fist-pump to earlier anthems ("I'm Amazed") the new tracks had the drunk, bearded audience screaming like Bieber girls and air-drumming en masse.
During the first 60 minutes of the band's two-and-a-half hour set, they came on like Van Halen of the hill people. James did a running knee slide across the length of the stage during "Wordless Chorus," which was stripped of all of its Eighties softness, and turned muscular and relentless. James donned a velvet-lined cape for the song and perched on the lip of the stage, raising the cloak over his face in a kind of peek-a-boo/Batman routine and then lowering it to let loose falsetto yowls into the mic.
Once the quintet went through their walloping hits, they gave the audience a break and laid into softer songs and country tunes. Jones brought out singer-songwriter/fellow Kentuckian, Daniel Martin Moore, who he introduced as one of his oldest friends (Jones produced Moore's Dear Companion) to duet on "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)." Jones strung out the songs intro for a few minutes, waxing spiritual about the architecture of the beautifully preserved 122-year-old Auditorium, saying he suspected the gilt theatre had "been built by God" (it was designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan – close enough).
The singer insisted that his spotlight be cut and the houselights brought up low: "Leave the golden rainbow on!" As the room was illuminated with a warm light, Jones and Moore began harmonizing sweetly, and 4,000 joyous, drunk fans looked heavenward, to appreciate the ceiling.