What do The Boston Pops, Cameron Crowe, Pink Floyd lighting designer Mark Brickman and Levon Helm of the Band all have in common? The answer is that they have all recently worked with Kentucky rock outfit My Morning Jacket.
Since the release of their fourth studio effort Z in October of 2005 the band has exploded into the collective consciousness of rock fans across the county. Their shows have been selling out nearly every night and the palpable energy in the room erupts when they take the stage.
“We have had a lot of good things happen to us in the last year and we feel really blessed about it,” said the Jacket’s drummer, Patrick Hallahan, in a recent interview with me. “But I have to say that working with the Boston Pops was one of the best experiences.”
Hallahan seemed almost star-struck as he recounted the experience. “Getting that call was insane. We have always dreamed about getting the chance to play in front of a full symphony orchestra,” he said. “And to have not just any orchestra, but the Boston Pops call you, was an incredible feeling.” Unfortunately for their fans, the concerts were not professionally recorded so only fans who were lucky enough to have been in Symphony Hall in Boston on one of those two evenings have any idea about the true majesty of the experience.
Shortly before the call that invited them to share the stage with The Pops, Hallahan and his band-mates had received another, very flattering, phone call. They were invited to contribute a song to Endless Highway: The Music of The Band, a tribute album that is due out Jan. 30 on 429 Records. My Morning Jacket has the distinction of being the only band that was able to take advantage of an offer to record their contribution in the studio of legendary Band drummer, Levon Helm. “There are very few people in this world that I get all giggly and star-struck over and Levon Helm is on the top of the pile with maybe three others,” said Hallahan. “He wasn’t involved with the actual recording at all, but it was just so incredible to be up there and get a chance to talk to him and have all the stories about how great a guy he is be backed up by his actions. It was amazing.”
To make the situation that much more amazing, they were able to record one of The Band’s most heartfelt and poignant ballads, “It Makes No Difference.” “The song is just so incredible,” Hallahan gushed. “It is such a sad love song and it was one of the first songs of theirs that we all collectively fell in love with. It made such perfect sense for us to record it for that project,” he said.
Joining My Morning Jacket on the tribute are some of the best in the business. Bruce Hornsby, Rosanne Cash, John Hiatt, Widespread Panic and The Allman Brothers Band all paid their respects The Band’s legacy and contributed their own versions of some of the most influential songs in American musical history.
While they did play their cover of “It Makes No Difference” a couple of times in concert, Hallahan confesses that they have a tendency to focus on their own material when playing live. “Covers are fun and we’ll pull one out if it is the appropriate time, but we played a lot more when we didn’t have as much of a catalog to choose from.”
Their most recent project Okonokos is an epic live album released on both CD and DVD that features My Morning Jacket reaching back into their catalog and showcasing 21 original songs. Recorded in front of a packed house at The Fillmore in San Francisco amid an elaborate set decorated to look like a remote forest location, Okonokos captures the ferocious raw energy of the Jacket in their natural element.
It is obvious when watching Okonokos that this is a band that has come of age in the last couple of years. They recognized the significance of putting out a live DVD and they pulled out all the stops and put on the performance of their lives when it counted. For support, they enlisted an A-List crew that included Mark Brickman, legendary lighting designer for Pink Floyd. “Brickman was only working with us for the filming of the DVD but his good friend and protégé Marc Janowitz is working with us now. Basically, Mark Brickman appointed our lighting director and that is a true honor.”
Janowitz was named “Lighting Director of the Year” in 2004 by ED Magazine and by all accounts has added an incredible visual element to My Morning Jacket’s live performances. “This is the first time we have gone out on tour and had a light show that really affects our heads,” Hallahan said. “Sometimes I get so caught up in the lights that I forget where I am and that has been an amazing twist of events.”
In another amazing twist of events for the Jacket last year, the boys were offered their silver screen debut by one of the most respected directors in Hollywood. Director Cameron Crowe “was searching for a band from Kentucky to play [pause] a band from Kentucky in his Elizabethtown project,” chuckled Hallahan. “Fortunately for us we were playing at the Troubadour in LA around the time he was thinking about this and he and some of his staff came out to see us play. After the show he approached us and we hit it off right away.”
It wasn’t long before Cameron was being led around rural Kentucky by this group of long haired rock and rollers. “He flew out to Kentucky and stayed here for a while and we showed him what it was like to be a Kentuckian; everything from Bourbon tastings to Bar-B-Qs to long walks in dark cemeteries. We were really just trying to give him a sense of the culture more than anything.”
When it came to begin filming, Crowe shared his vision for the movies climactic scene and revealed that it focused on My Morning Jacket playing the classic Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Free Bird.” “At first we were a little apprehensive as that could be the nail in the coffin for our musical career,” Hallahan admitted. “However, once we read the script and saw how it fit into the movie, it was a no-brainer.”
From Crowe to The Boston Pops, the Kentucky boys have certainly made their mark on several echelons of American culture recently. It seems in many ways that they have gone from being merely a rock band to being a cultural phenomenon whose star is still rising. It won’t be long before My Morning Jacket will be listed right alongside the people they considered their influences and idols.
Check Out My Morning Jacket If You Like:
- The Band
- Wolf Parade
- Drive-By Truckers