Review: My Morning Jacket at Merriweather Post Pavilion August 12

My Morning Jacket performed Friday at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. b editor Anne Tallent reviews the show below.

"Told me not to smoke drugs, but I wouldn't listen
Never thought I'd get caught and wind up in prison"

The lyrics of My Morning Jacket's "Outta My System" might draw skepticism from the Parents Television Council. But the Beach Boys-esque melody is pop-py, and, six songs into Friday's show at Merriweather Post Pavilion, wild-haired drummer Patrick Hallahan did kinda resemble the Muppets drummer Animal. So it was wholly believable that the song off MMJ's new album, "Circuital," was originally intended for a project involving the Muppets' Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. (Shockingly, it was nixed.)

Electric Mayhem is an apt way to describe My Morning Jacket's two and a half hours on stage on a beautiful evening in Columbia. The Louisville, Ky., group lived up to its reputation as a killer live band, reinforced this year by triumphant sets at Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. It was almost consistently brilliant.

Jim James and Co.'s mastery of dynamics and drama drove songs that are wise, sensitive and searching to grow into an otherworldly realm of their own — big enough for the whole crowd to fit inside. The structured melodies and freeform jams showed how effortlessly their guitar-driven Southern rock can expand to incorporate reggae, psychedelic noodling, electro-synth action and whatever else they feel like, really.

The show had more than a handful of peak moments. The crowd stood from the first moment of "Victory Dance," with its mashup of Bad Company posing and call-to-action warhorns. By the time distinctive riffs marked the start of the third song, "Off the Record," the mass of yuppies, hipsters (and surprisingly few hippies) was in ecstasy.  

Singer and guitarist James, alternately donning a heavy blazer, a vest and a Dracula cape, evoked some 19th-century prophet. He leapt, pranced, kicked and vamped while singing, sometimes wailing, with soul. An omnichord instrument hung from his neck as he walked on stage for "Victory Dance," and later he playfully moved between it and his guitar during "Touch Me, I'm Going to Scream" in the encore.

Even during established melodies, James and guitarist Carl Broemel seemed to be checking out each other's work. The band was tight, but Broemel stood out as he moved among guitar, pedal steel and saxophone.

Though James is the creative force, MMJ feels like a cohesive entity, not a backing band. The one exception was three songs into the six-song encore, when Neko Case joined the group for a duet with James on "Islands in the Stream." Before the show, I saw someone on Twitter calling for them to do this. Now that I've seen and heard it, I can't fathom why. Novelty has its limits.

(Case did have a strong, well-received opening set, highlighted by "This Tornado Loves You" and "The Pharoahs" from 2009's "Middle Cyclone.")

Buoyed by sustained bursts of energy — "Golden," "Magheetah," "Holding on to Black Metal," the entire encore except for "Islands" — the show seemed to lag in the middle, during a long jam that began somewhere around "Slow, Slow Tune," a '50s-style ballad off "Circuital." (However, the guy smoking pot in front of me took the opportunity to sit down and bob along, so he would probably disagree.) But as the jam grew and morphed, the vibe picked back up.

The crowd happily stuck it out with MMJ, who played the last song, "One Big Holiday," minutes before the 11 p.m. Merriweather curfew. But as my friend with me at the show said, "They play every song like it's their last."