The Scene: Saturday dawned beautiful. Temps were in the mid 70’s all morning and might have crested in the low 80’s in the afternoon when the parking lots at Red Rocks began filling up for the second night of My Morning Jacket’s two night run at the majestic Morrison venue. The buzz around the lot when we arrived was all about how great the previous night’s show had been. The Friday night set featured covers of the likes of Erykah Badu, INXS, and Elton John and looked pretty damn stunning, but all we could do was wait and hope they pulled out all the stops for Saturday night.
Our group made our way into the venue shortly after doors, found some prime real estate right behind the soundboard, and settled in to wait for the first of two openers to take the stage. As we waited I was pretty surprised by how long it took the lower general admission area to fill in. It wasn’t until nearly 8 o’clock that space became hard to come by as hard core fans jockeyed to protect their space from late comers who wanted to slip into the best seats in the house without paying their dues and arriving early.
Opener: Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. Troy “Trombone” Shorty and his band Orleans Avenue took the stage at about 6:50 and got the sparse crowd moving with their first notes. As usual, these guys poured their hearts into their set and it was clear from the ear to-ear grin on Shorty’s face that he was having a blast as he blew his horns and stared up at the towering monoliths. Their set included songs from their recent record For True like and a smattering of older favorites. Near the end of the set the band jammed on some James Brown and Shorty pulled out his best imitation of the late Godfather of Soul as he danced, and even moonwalked, around the stage. New songs or old, Orleans Avenue kept up a consistent barrage of hard charging horn based New Orleans Funk for the better part of 50 minutes before yielding the stage to Band of Horses.
Opener: Band of Horses. Now, I love Band of Horses, and have for years, but somehow their placement in this show just seemed a bit off even though it looked so good on paper. After the energy that Trombone Shorty laid down, the haunting, melodic ballads of Ben Bridwell’s band seemed to calm the mood in the amphitheater a bit and conversation almost drowned out the music from time to time. After taking the stage to Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me (Not To Come),” they played a solid set of some of their best songs, but even “Ode To lrc,” “No One’s Gonna Love You” and “The Funeral” didn’t grab the attention of the whole place the way that Trombone Shorty seemed to. That said, the band sounded good to those of us who are fans and it was good to see them get another shot on the big stage of Red Rocks after playing so many clubs in and around Denver over the years. In the end I think maybe Band of Horses is better suited for those smaller venues where their sound can fill the room and people are expecting to get lost in their mellow melodies.
My Morning Jacket: My Morning Jacket took the stage at 9:30 and eased into their set with “At Dawn” from their 2001 album of the same name. Like a well tuned engine, the band slowly built energy and momentum until they dropped the thundering combination of “It Beats 4 U” and “I’m Amazed” back-to-back early in the set. The band’s caped frontman, Jim James, was twirling and dancing around the stage from early on in the show with his mass of shoulder length hair frequently obscuring his face as soaring vocals poured forth from his soul. It is always a treat to hear James sing, but there is something about Red Rocks that makes hearing him almost a religious experience. It’s like his voice, and his band’s sound, were tailor made for the venue. As reverb drenched notes faded off into the night sky I couldn’t help but gaze around the venue for the millionth time in my life . . . it just never gets old.
The band pulled me back to reality when the edgy and almost harsh first notes of “Highly Suspicious” pierced the air. When I first heard this song on Evil Urges I wasn’t sure what I thought, but the more I have listened to it, the more I’ve grown to love it’s pulsating beat and dark and foreboding chorus. Judging by the reaction of the crowd, and the “Highly Suspicious” beer coozies several of my friends had, I wasn’t the only one who was loving the heavy wall of sound the band was creating up on stage. At this point we were only about 7 songs into the show and the band was firing on all cylinders and the energy in the crowd was heating up as the band slowed the pace a little bit with the nearly orchestral “The Day Is Coming.” As James sang “the day has come,” something clicked in my mind and it seemed clear that the day has indeed come for My Morning Jacket. While their previous two shows at Red Rocks in 2008 and 2011 have been raved about in fan circles, they seemed on pace to outdo themselves yet again on Saturday. It’s sure to be a point of much discussion, but on Saturday night, even as early as eight songs into the show, the band was making a strong case for the “best live band touring today” award.
A little bit later in the set the band went a long way toward cementing that status in my mind when they brought out Band Of Horses frontman Ben Bridwell for a psychedelic take on George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” that seemed to almost tease Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” at times. Now, admittedly it could be own brain damage that had me linking these two songs together as they were performed under swirling lights at Red Rocks, but it was still nothing short of an amazing performance that would have made the late Beatle proud. From there band kept the energy high with the two crowd pleasers “Mahgeetah,” and “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Part 2.” The latter song built on the psychedelic vibe that “Pity” had started despite it’s four on the floor dance beat that had the crowd jumping in every direction I looked. Eventually the track gave way to the piano intro to the tender “Movin’ Away” off of the band’s most recent release Circuital.
At this point we were over 2 hours into the show but the boys showed no signs of slowing down as they began to build things back up with Z’s “Dondante.” James’ falsetto reached to the top of the rocks as the rhythm section held the song together and we all hung on every beat of the drum and throbbing note of the bass until we let loose when the song climaxed in a screaming guitar solo. “Smokin’ From Shootin'” picked up where “Dondante” left off and soon had thousands of ecstatic fans pumping their fists in the air and screaming along with James as we looked around at each with disbelief on our faces and simply mouthed the word “wow” at each other.
It was as if the whole show was leading up to one moment for me and the highlight of the night came when the band played the first few notes to the classic song “It Makes No Difference” by The Band. Ever since the first time I heard this version of the song on The Band tribute album Endless Highway I’ve felt that My Morning Jacket at least equaled, if not bettered, the original . . . and I’m a HUGE fan of The Band. While they stay true to The Band’s arrangement, James seems to channel the passion Rick Danko poured into the tune at “The Last Waltz” while still adding a touch of his own flair as the rest of the band gives the song that undeniable My Morning Jacket power. It was a truly moving thing to witness and I think I might have felt a tear run down my cheek at one point during the monster version that filled Red Rocks on Saturday night.
I could have left happy right then and there, but James and company had more in store for us, much more. After closing out the set with the reggae beats of “Phone Went West,” they slipped off the stage for a few minutes to collect themselves before returning for an epic encore that started off with Jim James taking the stage solo armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar. After a short speech during which James thanked us profusely for coming out and got a bit choked up as he described what is like for the band to play Red Rocks, he floated off into At Dawn’s “Bermuda Highway.” Mesmerized by each and every word, blissed out faces turned toward the sky and couples held each other tight as James sang “Don’t let your silly dreams, fall in between the crack of the bed and the wall.” A solo version of “I Will Be There When You Die” came next and during the songs outro, James turned his back on the crowd and wandered all the way to the back of the stage and played the last few bars of the song inches from the massive rock formation that seemed to hold us all into the steep amphitheater.
While this was a powerful beginning to the encore segment of the show, things only got better when the band dedicated the show to Louisville music legend, Jason Noble, who had passed away the same day, and delivered an amazing version of the Velvet Underground’s “Oh, Sweet Nuthin’.” As we all reeled and expected the band to wrap the show up with a blistering “One Big Holiday” My Morning Jacket pulled an ace out of their sleeve when the invited John Oates (of Hall & Oates), and Trombone Shorty and his horn section, to the stage for Curtis Mayfield’s smooth and funky “Move On Up.” As they jammed on the funk with one of the kings of 80’s Blue Eyed soul, these guys amazed us all once again with their versatility as a band.
As the clocked neared one AM, nearly three and half hours after they started, “Dancefloors” kept us all dancing as the Orleans Avenue horns stayed on stage and pushed the limits of the song to the everyone’s delight. As expected, the night, and weekend, ended with a ferocious version of “One Big Holiday” and we were all left slack jawed and truly amazed as My Morning Jacket took a bow and headed out into the wings of the stage on the heels of one of the best concerts I have ever witnessed. That’s a bold statement, I know, but even several days removed from the event I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever get to see anything like that again in my life. In reality it’s shows like this one that have driven me to chase live music for all these years. They only come once in a long while, but when they do, it’s a memory that will last forever. After that, I can unequivocally say that My Morning Jacket is the best live band touring today and that, as my friend said midway through the night, they are re-defining what it means to be a Rock-n-Roll band.
Stage Presence: A+
Set / Light show: A