Kentucky’s My Morning Jacket’s intoxicating blend of classic West Coast country-rock, Southern gothic and psychedelic flourishes has long marked them out as one of the most interesting guitar bands on the American independent scene. Over the past 15 years, they’ve released a steady stream of accomplished, atmospheric and varied albums that, while never garnering widespread appeal, have built them a fiercely devoted fan base.
The converted were out in force at London Shepherd’s Bush Empire for the latest leg of their European tour, with the wide age range reflecting My Morning Jacket’s popularity with greying classic rock aficionados and youthful hipsters alike. The band’s concerts have been described as intense, almost transcendental experiences and front man Jim James looked every inch the cult leader as he emerged on the stage sporting dark sunglasses and a flowing poncho before kicking off the set with Wordless Chorus, from 2005’s Z.
Earlier this year, My Morning Jacket released their latest album The Waterfall, which by and large stuck to their established pattern of blending two distinct styles across its different songs – soft, harmony inflected balladry and ragged guitar epics – with some crunchy synthesisers added for good measure. While most of their earlier albums were also represented, tracks from their new record unsurprisingly dominate tonight’s show, with highlights including the rousing Believe (Nobody Knows) and the wistful, languid Only Memories Remain. The sprawling, freeform structures of songs like Compound Fracture and Spring (Among The Living) permeate every corner of the venue, with the searing guitars of James and Carl Broemel soaring and echoing to create an impressive wall of sound. James’s voice, whether a quiet sigh or an anguished howl, is crystal clear throughout.
That said, there’s something disappointingly soulless about My Morning Jacket’s performance, with a nagging sense of clinical proficiency undermining spontaneity. Even at their most ostensibly chaotic, the band appear note perfect and there is an odd lack of tension. At no point do the group attempt to interact with the audience, although we did get some short-lived on stage japes during the quirky Flaming Lips-like closer Mageetah and at their very best, for example on the spacey, gargantuan Steam Engine, the power of the music simply speaks for itself.
Only on one occasion do we get to see the other side of My Morning Jacket – the wide-eyed, beguilingly simple and heartfelt acoustic song writing that is sprinkled throughout their back catalogue. Get The Point, a bittersweet rumination on a failed love affair, features just James alone with his guitar, crooning a timelessly beautiful melody that pierces your defences like a passion-coated arrow. It’s a real shame we didn’t get more of this when My Morning Jacket boast such an extensive range of options.
Most of the crowd seemed happy however, and were on their feet by the time the band reappeared for a series of encores, which took the show time up to an excellent value two hours. That My Morning Jacket are an enjoyable live proposition is not in doubt, even if on tonight’s evidence James and company are not quite the multi-dimensional force they are in the studio.