Recording a debut live album is hard enough for a young rock band. The mix must be perfect, the banter tastefully spontaneous, and there are no mulligans on nailing the big falsetto moment. But when the spacey, soulful My Morning Jacket took the stage in November 2005 at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium beneath hanging foliage and a dizzying light show to record its live double-album "Okonokos," no one who saw the performance would have guessed that singer-guitarist Jim James was fighting off a lung infection.
"A couple of us were sick that night," James said this week as the band launched a tour that brings it to the House of Blues Anaheim and the Wiltern this weekend. Bassist Two-Tone Tommy "had the flu, and I had what turned out to be pneumonia. I was out cold for a few months after the show. There were subtle differences in my voice that I wouldn't have chosen but now I love."
Respiratory illness aside, "Okonokos" and the accompanying DVD cemented what had become conventional wisdom to audiences at the group's recent shows. The Louisville band has grown from a furry cult act often (and mistakenly) stereotyped as deep-fried Southern stoners into one of the tightest guitar rock acts in America, and a must-have name for any summer music festival worth its sunburns.
The five-piece group responsible for "Okonokos," and its most recent full-length "Z," is a second incarnation of sorts for My Morning Jacket. The band had released two albums, "The Tennessee Fire" and "At Dawn" on indie label Darla Records and a third, "It Still Moves," on ATO/RCA. Defined by James' plaintive, lonely wail and thick washes of reverb, the band was quickly praised and lumped in with Kings of Leon, Drive-By Truckers and other Americana acts deemed New Skynyrds by critics. That the band recorded in a converted grain silo provided an easy source of rustic metaphors that missed all the smoky R&B and experimental Pink Floyd panoramas that the band alluded to live and on record.
"The Southern rock thing annoys us," James said. "We're from Kentucky, and we have beards and long hair, but if someone wanted to judge us, they'd have to admit that we're not just one kind of band, we try everything."
But after the departure of the keyboardist and the lead guitarist (replaced by Bo Koster and Carl Broemel), those wide-ranging influences came to define the band's 2005 follow-up "Z," which ditched the grain silo in favor of roller-rink soul and sharper, more inventive pop instincts.
It was a nearly flawless album, except that their record label's parent company, Sony, embedded it with hidden spyware, which left anyone who played the album on a computer vulnerable to hacking, identity theft and monitoring by outside parties. The label recently reached a class-action settlement recalling and exchanging those albums, which included records by Foo Fighters, Alicia Keys and others. But for a left-of-center rock band whose livelihood depends on fan loyalty, such a blow to an audience's trust could have been devastating.
"They learned their lesson the hard way," James said. "They told us that it wouldn't mess with your computer. We [protested] when they tried to put that stuff on there, but we felt helpless. Labels should want to sell an artist, not make people scared because a record will screw up their computer." The band's management burned clean copies of the album to mail to anyone who complained. But the damage to "Z" was done. "Z" sold 186,000 copies, but the band had to earn back the respect of its fans.
The live "Okonokos" should do just that. The record largely culls from the group's two most recent albums, and songs such as "Off the Record" and "Magheeta" smoke with mile-high guitar solos and a rhythm section evocative of The Band's stomp and swagger. But older songs — like "The Way That He Sings" from "At Dawn" and "I Think I'm Going to Hell" from "Tennessee Fire" — are reinvented with new textures and confidence that excite James as much as the group's recent material.
"Some of the songs on the live record are my favorite versions," said James. "They're just golden. If you asked me which version best represented the songs, I'd often pick the live versions."
The DVD of the performance finds the band just as ambitious with its stagecraft as its sonics. The stage is draped in vines and set before a painted forest backdrop inspired by an outdoor concert in Japan that redefined how the band approached playing live. "It kind of removes you from the place," James said. "Even at a good concert, you're like, 'Here's the band, playing in a club.' We tried to remove those factors that your brain associates with a concert. We wanted to make the indoors outdoors."
Outdoors is where the band has thrived lately, with eye-popping sets at Bonnaroo and Coachella leaving even the most jaded indie rockers headbanging along with the impressively coiffed James. Though they recently performed an ambitious two-night stand accompanied by the Boston Pops, James alludes to their next record being "very danceable" and likely to bring hippies and hipsters together in Coppertoned revelry all over again.
"We often play with our eyes closed, so we don't know if it's 30 people or 30,000," he said. "But when you look out and see 40,000 people [at a festival], there's so much force coming through you, and, hopefully, people feel that we're going for it with all our bodies."
My Morning Jacket
Where: House of Blues Anaheim, 1530 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Price: $27 to $30
Info: (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com/anaheim
Where: The Wiltern, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Info: (213) 388-1400; www.wiltern.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun