It’s been a relatively light touring year for My Morning Jacket. But one of the popular Southern-flavored alt-rock outfit’s sporadic gigs included an appearance in the Blue Ridge back in August—a headlining slot at the annual Lockn’ Festival in bucolic Nelson County, Va. During the set the band ripped through some of the biggest tunes from its near-two-decade career, which started back in Louisville, Ky., in the late 90s. From the space-jazz jam in an extended “Steam Engine” to the twangy, full-throttle garage rock of old-school favorite “Mahgeetah,” the group delivered a commanding performance that lasted for more than two hours.
A surprising moment in the extended festival set came when Jacket frontman Jim James started crooning a version of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s 1965 ballad “What the World Needs Now is Love.” Midway through the song James addressed the crowd, saying “The world is a crazy place right now. We need to let each other know how much we love each other, regardless of race, regardless of creed, regardless of sexual orientation.”
Dropping such a saccharine song into a show filled atmospheric, edgy sounds could’ve come across as cheesy or ironic, but after a long summer of headlines dominated by social and political unrest, it managed to bring an exhausted, sweaty crowd into a unified sing-along. James, to his credit, has long been full of surprises that seem to work. As the shaggy, somewhat iconic leader of a band that lives just below the mainstream but possesses a fervent fan base and teeters between the worlds of indie and jam rock, he’s often been willing to experiment.
Beyond My Morning Jacket’s seven studio albums, James has released two solo efforts. The first, the 2009 EP Tribute To (released under the name Yim Yames), is full of quiet George Harrison covers that sound like they were recorded in an attic, and the follow up, 2013’s full-length Regions of Light and Sound of God, was an ambitious piece of DIY electro-rock, influenced by Lynd Ward’s wordless novel, God’s Man. This month James is releasing another full album, Eternally Even, out November 4.
Like the message he shared during the Lockn’ set, James is using the album as a call for humanity during indisputably troubled times. In a statement released on his latest effort, which will be released intentionally just ahead of the U.S. presidential election, James said: “I wanted to make an album that hopefully speaks to the issues of the day, many of which, sadly, are issues we have been dealing with since the beginning of time. Most of what I think about right now is how so many things in the world are SO f#@ked up—our political system is broken and corrupt … our Earth is being destroyed by climate change … people are not treating each other with equality and respect … and I think, ‘Are we going to make it? Are we going to figure it out and fix it before it’s too late? Can we ever truly open our hearts and embrace love in all its beautiful forms?’ I think it’s still possible.”
That optimism doesn’t immediately shine through in the lyrics of protest song “Same Old Lie,” which on paper look like they should be coming from Woody Guthrie strumming an acoustic guitar: “Hate crimes/Shelter lines/They try to take what’s yours and mine.” But James delivers them in a way that doesn’t wallow in darkness. The song cruises with a soulful pop groove that belongs in a dance club, and as the album progresses any hints of anger evolve into pleas for peaceful unity. The two-part “We Aren’t Getting Any Younger” starts with a mood-shifting, down-tempo electronic instrumental before segueing into a seize-the-day acid jazz poem. Similarly, “In the Moment” rebukes apathy through a hazy retro funk jam.
Slightly reminiscent of Sam Cooke’s Civil Rights anthem “A Change is Gonna Come,” James ultimately sees good things on the horizon in the R&B-fueled “The World’s Smiling Now,” a melodic meditation on finding comfort through chaos in the held hand of another. Inspiring music is just a part of what the world needs, and fortunately James has that covered.
Keller Williams’ Bluegrass Thanksgiving
Keller Williams nimbly jumps between genres. He’s best known for performing as a one-man band, an acoustic troubadour with a loop rig that allows him to incorporate a wide range of additional sounds beyond his guitar. But in recent years Williams has been collaborating with other musicians on a more regular basis. He often tours with his hard-hitting funk band, More Than a Little, or in projects with bluegrass greats Larry Keel and the Travelin’ McCourys. He’ll lean on the latter style later this month during two shows Williams is calling “Thanksforgrassgiving.”
For the pair of gigs, taking place at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., on November 25, and at the National in Richmond, Va., on November 26, Williams is assembling a roster of string band all-stars, including Jeff Austin on mandolin, Jay Starling on dobro, and Nicky Sanders of the Steep Canyon Rangers on fiddle. Starling’s band, Love Canon, which plays bluegrass versions of 80s hits, will open both shows. Williams also announced he will play a New Year’s Eve show at Rams Head Live in Baltimore, Md., that will include a set of Grateful Dead tunes from his Grateful Gospel project, which features guitarist John Kadlecik, formerly of the Dead side project Furthur.
Jim James will support his new solo record with a limited run of tour dates, including a handful in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast: November 19 at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C., November 22 at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, Ga., November 23 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., and November 25 at the Palace Theatre in Louisville, Ky.