A slight but telling moment occurred only two songs into My Morning Jacket's thrilling two-hour show at Merriweather on Saturday night, the venue's season opener:
At the close of "One Big Holiday," one of the band's many cathartic, hooky two-guitar showcases, frontman Jim James snatched a toy pistol from the holster he wore throughout the concert and fired an imaginary shot into the audience; moments later, while working into the more ethereal "Gideon," he directed a kind of Buddhist bow toward the zealous crowd.
The two contradictory movements made a declaration of purpose: the rock gig as spiritual transcendence, a state of Nirvana sought via the electric guitar. The dualities didn't end there, and the band, formed in Louisville, Ky., in the late '90s, expertly meshed high culture and deep roots with rock and roll's animal instincts ...
At the opening, fans of 20th-century classical music would've noticed a loop of minimalist composer Steve Reich's "Four Organs," which the quintet punctuated with thundering chords. (The results recalled The Who.) Vocalist and guitarist James was a consummate rock showman, borrowing Pete Townshend's knee-slides and summoning guitar gods past through his V-shaped Gibson. But he also offered a fine impersonation of a trad-jazz crooner with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band during its set. (James guests on that terrific and historic ensemble's new album.)
Pulling largely from the albums "It Still Moves" (2003) and "Z" (2005), MMJ sparingly referenced its latest, sometimes oddly grooving record, "Evil Urges." Instead, the band offered more of the sound that made it famous, a deft balance of familiar melody and outsized rock sonics.
James' songwriting is dependent on stylistic touchstones you should be familiar with: Neil Young's sharp country-rock, sunny '60s and '70s pop, the shadow of Bob Dylan. Those tunes were filtered through the band's twin-guitar attack, the robust rhythm section of drummer Patrick Hallahan and bassist Tom Blankenship, and Bo Koster's keyboards, which created ambiance and filled in the harmony while guitarist Carl Broemel and James took turns soloing, harmonized their leads or engaged in a kind of collective improvisation that brought to mind a hard-rock variation of Preservation Hall's most raucous moments.
The guitar work was ferocious -- imagine the Allman Brothers raised on AC/DC, or the Dead with a philosophical interest in punk rock. (The influence of arena rock as it was reborn in the early '90s was also undeniable: A guy in front of me wore a Pearl Jam T-shirt, and the selection seemed wholly appropriate.) A song like "Off the Record," with its lilting, vaguely Caribbean cadence, was taken into aerospace, and the symmetry was stunning: A hummable melody and to-the-moon guitar heroics in equal portions. This is clearly a group who loves to jam, though to call it a jam-band isn't fair.
When the high-volume picking verged on chest beating, an acoustic number would pull the show's focus toward the song itself. "Golden," with James on guitar, Broemel on pedal steel and some well-placed vocal harmonies, underscored the frontman's sweet, melancholy way with country-rock melody, and highlighted his warm, casual tenor. As a singer, James likes his voice the way he likes his guitar sound: saturated in reverb, which turns his frequent falsetto wails into possessed incantations. (In the case of "Wordless Chorus," the first encore number, those soul shrieks became overbearing, like the toy gun he twirled or the antique cape he covered himself with at times.)
Another fine, and surprising, showcase for James' voice closed the whole shebang, which had to end at 11 p.m. in accordance with Merriweather's curfew. (James expressed, in no uncertain terms, his distaste for that policy.) Rejoined for the final few tunes by the Preservation Hall band, James channeled Curtis Mayfield on "Move On Up," the huge-toned horn section tackling those iconic lines with spiritual aplomb. If it was transcendence James and company looked to offer, they delivered.
(My Morning Jacket's Jim James performs with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Sunday, April 25, 2010. AP photo by Gerald Herbert)