Concert Review: My Morning Jacket, The Sleepy Jackson, Marianas (October 1, 2003, Omaha, NE)

“Verve” and “conviction” were two things Jim James and Co. had in abundance that night.

There was a time when it seemed like I went to a show every week, standing at some bar or venue, or even in someone’s dank basement until the wee hours of the night, listening to this or that band. However, I don’t make it out nearly as much as I once did. I might be getting older and more un-hip, but I suspect much of it is due to the fact that I’m just not that interested by much of what goes on in the Lincoln music scene (and I’m not saying that to sound elitist… well, no moreso than usual).

Still, Lincoln feels fairly stagnant, with most of the “big” local bands content to play the same old crap in the same old bars to the same old crowd. However, there are a handful of bands that I still try to keep tabs on, that still excite me with what they’re trying to accomplish, and right now, Marianas is towards the top of that list. And I’m not saying that just because I’m on a first name basis with all of the members (well, at least until they added some new fellas). I honestly feel like they’re making some of the most interesting music I’ve heard from a Nebraska band in quite some time.

Every time I feel like I’m going through a slump where music doesn’t interest me quite as much as it once did (like right now), their music is like a breath of a fresh air. Watching Marianas live, I get a huge, dopey smile on my face, the kind of smile I only get when I’m listening to a band that A) is doing their best to make music that is truly inspired and beautiful, and B) seems genuinely excited and thankful to be doing so.

It’s hard to pin down Marianas’ sound, in large part because they’re constantly changing and reworking their music. New sonic elements get added, song structures get remodeled, and melodies get shifted and tweaked. Even their oldest songs, the ones I’m most familiar with, can take me by surprise at times. As a result, each Marianas show is a unique experience.

That was especially true tonight, as it saw the debut of the band’s new lineup. The onetime trio recently added a drummer and a bassist/trumpeter/sleighbell-ist, and both helped to flesh out and deepen their sound. I’ll confess I was leery when I heard they added a drummer. I was afraid that might overwhelm the subtle atmospherics and electronic textures that make their music so great. If there’s one thing Marianas didn’t need to do to their music, it was to bring in some more rawk. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. The drums did bring some extra punch to the band’s sound, but it was a nice addition, one I didn’t even realize they could benefit from until I actually heard it.

Sadly, not everyone was an enthralled by Marianas’ performance, as was obvious when they were told to cut their set short, with two songs remaining. Apparently, Marianas was encroaching onto The Sleepy Jackson’s set time. However, once Marianas took their stuff down, the stage remained vacant for about 15 minutes while The Sleepy Jackson were off doing, well, whatever bands do when they eat up stage time that could’ve been used by the previous band to finish out their much-deserved set.

Part of me wishes I could’ve gotten into The Sleepy Jackson’s music more than I did. Something inside told me that I’d probably like it given slightly different circumstances. But even once I’d gotten over my bitterness at Marianas having been screwed (and yes, I realize that was probably more The Ranch Bowl’s fault than The Sleepy Jackson’s), I still found myself growing increasingly annoyed.

Throughout the set, I never knew what to make of The Sleepy Jackson. Were they some of sort of psych-rock jam band, with long, drawn out guitar wank sessions that borrowed liberally from The Flaming Lips and even My Morning Jacket? If so, then why did they spend so much time aping The Strokes, Interpol, and Sonic Youth? Why did they waste stage presence on stupid stage antics, including the exact sort of pissed-at-the-mic behavior one hears about in Dana Carvey sketches? Why did the guitarist/lead vocalist spend much of his time strutting around the stage, ripping off Pete Townsend, and getting pissy with his guitar tech, pedals, and cords (in fact, everything but his tedious playing)?

The longer The Sleepy Jackson played, the more pointless their songs seemed to become, usually consisting of little more than boring intros strung together by unintelligible vocal outbursts, followed by even longer outros that served no point but to beat the song into the ground.

The worst moment came during the penultimate song, when the band settled into a long, chugging groove that grew more and more preposterous the longer it lasted. When the drummer grew tired of the lead singer machine-gunning him with his guitar, and retaliated with some silly string that sent the vocalist into histrionics, I couldn’t hold back my laughter any longer; if I’d been drinking beer, I would’ve done a spit take all over the couple in front of me. The fact that so many in the audience cheered just goes to prove how easily entertained many Nebraskans have become.

When the band tore back into their song, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. After a build-up that long, I was expecting something major to happen, like the stage exploding. But instead, another extended outro dwindled off and that was that.

By the time My Morning Jacket took the stage, I was exhausted and the last thing I wanted to hear was another band that specialized in lengthy jam sessions, even if they featured vocals as gorgeous as Jim James’. I had only heard their new album once, on the way to the show, and I was afraid the band was getting a little too close to Black Crowes territory. But soon enough, the band had completely drawn me in and I was clapping my hands and stomping my feet right alongside everyone else.

Again, much of that had to do the band’s conviction. Passion is contagious, and even a mediocre band (which My Morning Jacket most certainly is not) can easily sway me if they play their music with verve and conviction. “Verve” and “conviction” were two things James and Co. had in abundance that night. It was obvious from the way the band tore into their music, limbs and long hair windmillin’ all over the place. This was a fivepiece who lived for their music, who lived for traveling night after night to play their music in smoky clubs for drunken patrons, and in fact who thrived on it.

Of course, it helps to have songs as gorgeous as “The Way That He Sings” (the first Jacket song I ever heard, and still one of my favorites), “X-Mas Curtain,” and “I Will Sing You Songs” in your repertoire. And the crowd ate it up, reaching up to touch James’ whenever he leaned out over the crowd, cheering every time he and Johnny Quaid traded massive guitar riffs, or when Patrick Hallahan launched into a huge drum solo at the end of the band’s set.

After a short break, James returned to the stage to do a solo acoustic set, and here the magic truly appeared. Even by his lonesome, with nothing but an acoustic guitar and that honey-smooth, Wayne Coyne-meets-Dwight Yoakam voice, James can put most bands to shame. (Heck, with a voice like that, he could record himself singing the phonebook and I’d still buy a copy or two.) Although the crowd was a clamoring mass earlier, they were mostly enraptured now, and I don’t blame them. I know I got little catch in my throat when he started into “Bermuda Highway,” with such heartbreaking lyrics as “Oh, don’t carve me out!/Don’t let your silly dreams/fall in between the crack of the bed and the wall.”

The rest of the band returned to end the night with an extra-long rendition of “Phone Went West,” full of big chords and James’ caterwauling. The boys from The Sleepy Jackson clambered onstage and the whole lot of them started raising a ruckus — dancing around, tossing beer all over the place, hanging upside down from the rafters, etc. While it was fun to watch a band let loose and have a blast onstage, the most amazing thing is that you know, come tomorrow night, My Morning Jacket will be doing the exact same thing in another town, and with the exact same fire and passion in their blood.

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