Many are called, but few are chosen. After four albums of classic new songs and another summer of onstage heroics, My Morning Jacket has become America’s best live rock ’n’ roll band. By Noah Bonaparte Pais
“You are putting your life in danger.”
It’s well past midnight on the third and final night of Lollapalooza 2007, and the only things missing from Jim James’ Almost Famous moment are a suburban swimming pool and a plastic cup of acid-spiked Kool-Aid. On the Kennedy Expressway, one of several primary traffic arteries feeding Chicago’s downtown Loop, a white limousine carrying James’ My Morning Jacket crew is speeding away from the city. Tonight, along with the usual suspects—MMJ drummer Patrick Hallahan, keyboardist Bo Koster, guitarist Carl Broemel and bassist Tom “Two-Tone Tommy” Blankenship—the band’s entourage has expanded to include a few new faces: Craig Pfunder (frontman of Louisville, Ky., homeboys VHS Or Beta), Peter Bauer (organist for New York City rockers the Walkmen) and MAGNET (packed like a sardine between the bear-sized Hallahan and his exceedingly gracious wife, Brigid).
Twelve of the people inside the 10-passenger limo are seated obediently, heeding the urgent and oft-repeated warnings of our safety-minded Middle Eastern chauffeur. Not James. MMJ’s normally reserved singer/songwriter is standing obstinately upright, the top half of his not-quite-six-foot frame protruding through an open sunroof, whooping and hollering at the top of his lungs and soliciting long horn pulls from the 18-wheelers passing by. If this isn’t a perfect screen capture of Billy Crudup’s LSD-laced rooftop rant in Cameron Crowe’s rock ’n’ road picture, then the surreal scene surely evokes Leonardo DiCaprio’s bow-climbing exaltations in Titanic.
It’s not that difficult to forgive James for feeling like the king of the world. Given the events of this fast-dwindling weekend, “golden god” isn’t out of the question, either. Six hours earlier, from his perch on Lollapa-looza’s main stage, James was waking up tens of thousands of worn-down revelers. He howled the falsetto R&B outro to “Wordless Chorus,” the streamlined opener to 2005’s sleek Z, with all the soul-sapping anguish of a mortally wounded Marvin Gaye. He gently fingerpicked “Golden,” the gorgeous acoustic track from 2002 barnburner It Still Moves, just as the sun fell behind the Sears Tower, forming one of the world’s largest silhouettes. He even covered Curtis Mayfield (“Chicago’s favorite son,” James likes to say) for the set’s climactic curtain-dropper. And he did all of this with 18 high-school students from the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra—a grandiose assemblage of violins, violas, cellos, horns and upright basses—punctuating his band’s every musical phrase.
So it follows that our driver, seemingly aware of his regal rock cargo, silently raises the privacy shield and ignores the juvenile antics. You see, he isn’t actually our driver at all. By this point in the trip from the band’s Hard Rock Hotel to the Debonair Social Club, a Milwaukee Avenue nightspot that Pfunder selected as our after-party destination, the collective conscience has awakened to the fact that we all somehow just ended up in the back of this limo. A quick survey of the clueless faces reveals Pfunder as the instigator.
“I flagged him down on the street,” he says with a mischievous grin. “I asked him how much, and he’s like, ‘$15 per person.’ So I’m like, ‘How’s about 60 bucks and a big fucking tip?’” Pfunder pauses for effect. “‘Get in.’”
Twenty death-defying minutes later, we’re dropped off in front of the Debonair, a wannabe exclusive joint with a disheveled red carpet winding its way up to a pair of forbidding bouncers. Inside, it’s Night Of The Living Roxbury. Remixes are blaring a repeated boom-chik-boom-chik bass line as film projectors throw arty, cut-up images onto bare walls. Every so often, a woman stumbles into the light, squints at the beam and starts to wildly gyrate.
This isn’t the kind of place where you’d expect to find purveyors of shape-shifting, soon-to-be-classic rock, fresh off headlining America’s biggest alt-rock festival gig of 2007. It is, however, exactly the kind of place where you’d expect to run into R. Kelly, and we have. He’s right over there, circled off by bodyguards. He has a towel over his head and is flapping his arms in time to the music and swigging from a bottle of Patrón.
“Where the hell is Andrew Bird?” asks Dave Kissner, MMJ’s irritated soundman. It’s a ridiculously rhetorical question. Bird, a friend and tourmate, isn’t here, of course; he’s likely still at the Hideout, a nearby music venue that was originally on our itinerary before Pfunder, whose dance-happy VHS Or Beta meshes better with these kinds of surroundings, made the detour to Debonair. Kissner isn’t pleased with the change in plans. “This is bush league,” he mutters to no one in particular.
Others in the posse aren’t so pissed off. Brandon Jones, a member of Louisville rock band Follow The Train, can’t stop exclaiming, “I just cheers’d R. Kelly! I just cheers’d R. Kelly!”
“You’re too old for him,” jabs an anonymous jokester.
Both Bauer and Christopher “KC” Guetig, another Louisvillian and a onetime MMJ drummer, are moving well to the music. “He never dances,” says Bauer’s wife, giggling. Fearless bandleaders Pfunder and James are nowhere to be found. Off to the side, Koster is standing by himself. With a glassy-eyed stare, he puts into words what everyone else—exhausted after a weekend of nonstop rehearsing, performing and, on this night, partying—seems to be feeling.
“I want to take my eyeballs out and eat them,” he says before heading toward the four-deep bar, presumably in search of something to wash them down with.
“God really outdid himself here, huh?”
Two weeks before the Lollapalooza limo ride, one of the Red Rocks Amphitheatre’s resident graybeards is kindly giving MAGNET the 10-cent tour. We’re mostly just killing time, counting down the hours until the venerable Morrison, Colo., venue’s most iconic concert in some time. Unlike many heavily publicized rock shows, the hype for tonight’s booking isn’t hyperbole. Red Rocks has, over its 100-year history, played host to the likes of the Beatles and U2, but when it comes to musically bridging the generation gap, tonight’s twin bill of Bob Dylan and My Morning Jacket is nothing short of the Golden Gate.
It’s impossible not to gawk at the natural wonder of Red Rocks, mere minutes removed from the metropolitan bustle of Denver. Cradled between three giant outcroppings of crimson stone, the stage imparts the same rarefied air of divinity as Athens’ Acropolis or Rome’s Coliseum. The juxtaposition of high-tech lighting against the stage’s natural sandstone background resembles something out of Planet Of The Apes. Still, it’s obvious the venue has gone to great lengths to conceal the seams separating its organic and synthetic aspects. Girders supporting the lighting rigs are painted a perfect shade of red-rock red, while the cubbyhole-sized green rooms are blanketed in various shades of brown. Moving through them feels like burrowing deep into the Earth itself.
When James emerges from the backstage area, he resembles nothing of the hair-farming shaman you’ve seen onstage and in magazine photos. His hair is cropped, and he’s damn close to clean-shaven—a foreign, fresh-faced appearance that makes him look younger than 29. He’s soft-spoken, with a down-home Southern accent that creeps out in punctuating curses from time to time.
The three gigs My Morning Jacket is playing with Dylan—back-to-back nights at Red Rocks followed by a show in Telluride—mark the end of a month-long Rocky Mountain vacation spent holed up in a cabin two hours away in Colorado Springs, where the band isolated itself in June to map a course for its upcoming fifth album. The as-yet-untitled LP will be recorded later this year and released on ATO Records sometime next spring.
“I’ve got about 22 songs,” says James. “We’ll get it down to 17 or 18. Once you do the real recordings, some of them work and some of them don’t. The toughest decision for us is whether to make a record that is full of variety. If you look at any of our other records, you’ve got your rockin’ songs, your softer songs, your weird songs, whatever—you’ve got a mix. I like that, but part of me wants to make a really tight, eight-song, fucked-up funk record, and then a really tight, nine-song, quiet record. I’ve always liked records like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, where you just know you’re getting 40 minutes of peace. Or if you’re ready to go crazy, you put on fuckin’ Paul’s Boutique or something. So that’s the notion we’re toying with.”
James stops short of describing which direction he’s leaning; somewhere between the Boss and the Beastie Boys will have to do for now. But he’s happy to paint a picture of MMJ’s familial relations in the cabin, which included plenty of intraband male bonding: cooking dinner, making demos and hanging out each night.
“I think that’s one of the things that makes this work so well,” he says. “We all really love being with each other. No girlfriends, no cell phones, just working on the record, man. We really enjoy our time together. But it’s good that we’re gonna split apart now, come back for Lollapalooza, then split apart again. I think that works best for us.”
Of MMJ’s summertime commitments, James casually says that Dylan’s people “just called and asked if we wanted to play” and that ever since appearing with the Boston Pops for a series of shows in 2006 (including an appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman), several orchestral outfits—including the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra—have contacted the group about potential collaborations.
This is a small taste of what life has been like for arguably America’s Best Live Band. Receive an e-mail from one of the country’s most renowned orchestras, which wants to turn your next concert into a symphonic spectacle on network television. Field a phone call from the most revered songwriter alive, who asks you to open three sold-out shows in paradise.
And though Dylan doesn’t appear in his own biopic—the new Todd Haynes-directed I’m Not There—James does. The film, in which Dylan is portrayed by various actors including Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere and Cate Blanchett, also features James performing “Goin’ To Acapulco” with Calexico as his backing band. James can be spotted wearing a floppy hat and white face paint a la Dylan during the ’75-’76 Rolling Thunder Revue, and “Acapulco” appears on the film’s soundtrack alongside other Dylan covers by Eddie Vedder, Cat Power, Willie Nelson and the Hold Steady.
In between two summer-closing festival gigs at Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits (MMJ passed on the chance to attend Bonnaroo for a fifth consecutive year), James also appeared at New York City’s Beacon Theater in August alongside Spoon’s Britt Daniel and the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman for the Revenge of the Book Eaters benefit. The concert was a charity event for 826NYC, the Brooklyn outpost of the education-promoting nonprofit founded by novelist Dave Eggers.
“He’s my favorite (author) right now,” says James. “I love [Eggers’ 826 Valencia] store in San Francisco. It’s a pirate supply store, but it’s also a center for reading and tutoring kids in creative writing. I just think that’s so fucking awesome. I feel like more and more kids are just watching TV, getting their minds melted and forgetting about reading. People like Eggers are doing so much good, making it fun and cool to read and write creatively.”
After Austin City Limits, James and his girlfriend plan to drop off the grid for a month. They’re heading to New Mexico to reside in an Earthship, an eco-friendly, U-shaped structure made from recycled and natural materials.
“It’s kinda hippie-dippie,” he admits. “But it also sounds sort of cool. I don’t know if I’ll like the Earthship thing, but I do like the idea of buying a lot of land somewhere and building a house on it that’s completely self-sufficient.”
Then the band will work without pause until its next record is in the can. Veteran engineer Joe Chiccarelli (Beck, the Shins) had signed on to co-produce the album with James.
“Some places have no vibe and great gear,” says James. “Other places have great vibe and no gear. We met with a couple guys from the label at the cabin, and it was good just to talk about it. I’m really excited about the scope and possibilities of this record. There are so many directions we could go. I just want it to be weird.”
One noteworthy change in the making of this album is the stretch of inactivity between the writing and recording periods. A break in the band’s typically breathless routine was called for.
“We made a vow to take some time off,” says James. “The last couple records, we did so much our minds kind of melted. I needed time just to write. That’s kind of our new pact: to not drive ourselves crazy with this thing.”
“Death is the easy way.”
There’s a point at which any touring band reaches terminal velocity. Dilapidated Dodge vans, cramped quarters and shitty Chicago nightclubs only serve to press down on the pedal. Yet My Morning Jacket has never been healthier. The evidence is everywhere: in the respectable deal it brokered with major-label subsidiary ATO; the reputation it’s earned as knock-down, drag-out performers via annual cross-country marathons; and the four increasingly varied albums it’s made since 1999, each garnering more praise—not to mention sales—than its predecessor.
But My Morning Jacket did come close to breaking up once. Around the turn of 2004, after almost five years of near-uninterrupted touring, 40 percent of the band—keyboardist Danny Cash and guitarist Johnny Quaid (James’ cousin)—decided to hang it up, even with the group’s popularity on the rise and It Still Moves breaking through to a much wider market. The rollercoaster had taken its toll, and Cash and Quaid wanted off.
“You can’t keep that up for more than six months at the most, and they’d been doing it for four-and-a-half years,” says James Agren, founder of Southern California-based Darla Records, which signed MMJ in 1998 and issued its first two albums. “Danny and Johnny just stepped out. They were like, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ It was painful, I’m sure.”
“We didn’t really know whether we would keep going,” says James, who describes the split only as “amicable.” “We thought, ‘Maybe we’ll do it as a three-piece.’ I really didn’t know. It would’ve been different. I’m glad it happened like this.”
A friend suggested the band hold auditions for the two vacated spots. “I was pessimistic about it,” says James. “We tried out maybe eight or nine people, and (other than Broemel and Koster) a couple of them were OK. But none of them really worked. The whole rest of the audition went just like I thought it would.”
Except for those first two: the unknown keyboardist from Cleveland and the guitarist recommended by singer/songwriter Bobby Bare Jr. who came in able to play every song in the band’s catalog. “They knew everything, more than we did,” says James. “They just fucking nailed it. Anything could’ve happened. They could’ve been dickheads or drug addicts. I felt like Bo and Carl were sent to us to keep it going.”
“Had I stayed or had John and Danny stayed, I don’t know if they’d be where they are today,” says Guetig, who drummed for MMJ from 2000 to 2002. “This band, the way it is now, is the way it’s supposed to be. Pete’s a better drummer than me, Carl’s a better guitar player than Johnny, Bo is leaps and bounds better than Danny on keys. This band is amazing.”
MMJ’s now-solidified lineup is the latest in a long list of James’ bands since grade school. Cutting his teeth in roughshod Louisville rock outfits Hotel Roy and Month Of Sundays, James has since fashioned four versions of My Morning Jacket. Everyone has a story about the first time they heard one of James’ bands, and each one starts differently. But they all end up talking about the lone common denominator: James’ voice.
“It was a Sunday morning, and I’d woken up early to do what I called the ‘demo derby,’” says Agren. “Going through trash bags full of cassettes and DATs and giving each a 20-second listen. It was around Valentine’s Day, and Jim made us a valentine, this ‘Dear Darla, let’s make beautiful music together’ thing. I played his tape, and it was instantly like, ‘Holy fuck … Where’s the letter?’ There were a couple hundred demos. I woke up my wife Chandra, my partner in Darla, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to help me find this letter. I have to call this guy right now.’”
Guetig remembers one early performance at a high-school music festival: “[James] had no facial hair, short hair. And he’s running around the stage, screaming—basically a young, unformed version of Jim as he is now. Then, as [MMJ] got bigger shows, I would go to all of them. I worked in the library’s media department, so I would steal the digital camera and take photos of the band and post them to the Web site. I was a fan of Jim before I was in the band, I was a fan of Jim while I was in the band, and now I may be an even bigger fan. I think everyone knew he was bound for big things. It was just that energy, that voice.”
James’ voice, at once inviting and armor-piercing, carries equal amounts of reverb and remorse through MMJ’s first two albums, countrified beauties The Tennessee Fire (1999) and At Dawn (2001). It Still Moves revealed James’ rock chops, and on Z, he was the emcee of a keyboard-crazy dance party. If the emotional trajectory stays true to form, album number five just might end up a funk-drunk disco. Or maybe James will save that for after his Nebraska.
“When it started, it was just Jim,” says Agren. “He always did more than I ever expected as far as the quality and volume of the output. He was like, ‘I’m gonna put together a band with my friend Danny and my cousin Johnny. This guy Two-Tone Tommy’s gonna play bass, and this guy from around here, Jeremy (Glenn), is gonna play drums.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure. Whatever.’ The next thing you know, he’s got the band together and they’re touring. And it’s good.”
“Watch out now; take care, beware of falling swingers.”
George Harrison’s warning—the opening line from the second platter of All Things Must Pass, Red Rocks’ tasteful pre-show PA choice—comes 10 seconds too late. Hellbent on staking a claim to the choicest of the auditorium’s nearly 9,500 seats, a horde of hippies rushes into the amphitheater 59 minutes before show time, almost trampling the graybeard as we aimlessly admire the surroundings after sound check.
Apparently, general-admission tickets to see Bob Dylan are all some baby boomers need to give peace, love and understanding the great fuck-off. We bolt from the front row just in time to avoid certain disaster, missing one panting loon by the length of a single Birkenstock. Row by row, the dozens of crescent-shaped benches quickly begin to fill up.
“They’re all like this,” says the graybeard matter-of-factly, preempting the question.
Anticipation for the show is at a fever pitch by the time the members of My Morning Jacket, looking dapper in velour dinner jackets, take the stage. Storm clouds have been stalking Red Rocks all afternoon, and the wind picks up as the band begins its set. It soon starts to feel as if James’ wails are conjuring the rain. The tarps covering auxiliary sound gear balloon up with each gust, giving overweight stagehands a workout between songs.
Onstage, MMJ has a clear personality divide: Broemel (blonde with sharp Germanic features) and Blankenship (whose modesty translates perfectly to an inscrutable bassist’s brood) are the stationary rocks, tending to their instruments in workmanlike fashion; Hallahan (a latter-day Gregg Allman) and Koster (mostly hidden behind dark shades and an engineer’s cap) are the hype men in back, undulating their bodies to the rhythm of the music. James stands alone stage left, at times closing his eyes while cradling the mic for a high note, at others facing Hallahan for an impassioned, leg-on-the-kit guitar solo.
The sky is crying when James leads MMJ into closing song “Run Thru,” a hard-and-heavy blues number from It Still Moves that erupts into a Can-like drum-and-bass breakdown. It’s likely the closest krautrock has ever gotten to Colorado, and Blankenship lays waste to the Sturm und Drang bridge. As they come off the stage to thundering applause, James and Hallahan hit manager Jamie Sampson with loud high-fives.
“They killed it,” says Sampson.
Sampson is correct, but then again, they usually do. MMJ’s already gargantuan hooks have a way of inflating to fill any arena, no matter the size, and its Godzilla-like drum fills and guitar riffs play so well at festivals that the band practically has standing invitations to play Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits.
Following MMJ’s killer set, there’s a fast change, and amid a light-yet-steady shower, Dylan materializes at center stage. He’s looking down at the ground, sporting a black suit and a white fedora as the lights come up on him and his band, a 10-deep contingent of guitarists, supporting singers and percussionists. Without pause, Dylan croaks out the first few words to a double-time rendition of “Everybody Must Get Stoned.” Like lemmings, everybody does.
Halfway through the set, I meet up in the crowd with Koster, who’s still high from the evening’s performance. Koster shares personal thoughts about having just finished what likely was a defining moment of his professional career. Over the harmonica, I manage to make out every few words: “Dream come true … Red Rocks and Madison Square Garden … Miles Davis and Bob Dylan are it.” His ear-to-ear grin says it all.
I bid Koster farewell before Dylan’s final encore, the scowls from people around us serving their purpose. Surely, they seem to be suggesting, Satan reserves a special place in hell for music journalists who attempt interviews during Dylan concerts.
“So much goin’ on these days.”
Roosevelt University is housed in a stately building facing Grant Park’s west side on Michigan Avenue, the Loop’s lakeside drag. It’s noon on Friday, the inaugural hour of Lollapalooza’s first day, and My Morning Jacket is in class. On one side of Roosevelt’s 10th floor is the erroneously named Large Ensemble Rehearsal Room, a smallish space where the band is conducting a no-holds-barred practice with 18 high-school students from the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. On the other side of the 10th floor is the university library.
“If you see someone running through here waving a stapler in the air, that’s why,” hollers Scott Dodson, director of development and marketing for the CYSO, over the racket.
Plans to practice in the Chicago College of Performing Arts auditorium, a roomier locale next door, were scrapped when the air conditioning went on the fritz. Says MMJ tour manager Mike Frye, “I’ll sacrifice a couple years of hearing for a couple hours of AC.”
The Rehearsal Room contains an interesting mash-up of items from the rocker/student mix. Carpet-lined guitar racks lie next to interlocking baby-grand pianos. Curvy orchestral-instrument cases rest on crude, black rock boxes. Near the blackboard along one wall stands a seemingly out-of-place three-foot-tall bear statue. The bear is fast becoming a source of amusement for MMJ; someone has already outfitted it with a Mexican shawl and Frankenstein mask. Facing the board with marker in hand, Smokey appears to have been charged with drawing up today’s set list.
My Morning Jacket is positioned in the center of the room: Guitarists James and Broemel are at the far sides, flanking bassist Blankenship in the middle; all three are playing in front of Hallahan’s and Koster’s respective drum and keyboard platforms. At the end of the rectangle, CYSO musical director Allen Tinkham is doing his best Leonard Bernstein, conducting and cueing violin and viola bows with gusto. During each violent twist and twirl of his baton, the mop of curly black hair on Tinkham’s head threatens to take flight.
There are more than 300 students involved in the Youth Orchestra’s four ensembles. One-third of those are in the most advanced section, and from that pool, 18 members were selected to sit behind My Morning Jacket at Lollapalooza. So it should come as no surprise that these players, the cream of the CYSO crop, could enter the room, pick up their instruments and immediately sound like they’ve always been part of James’ band.
Hairs raise the first time the string section enters “Move On Up,” the Curtis Mayfield song that will close MMJ’s Lollapalooza performance. The levels aren’t quite right, however, and the band calls for a break so roadies can attach miniature microphones to each instrument, in effect evening out the sound scales. Downtime is filled with renditions of the Golden Grahams jingle and “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late),” for which the group intones a credible helium-high wheeze.
“Is there a Christmas program we don’t know about?” kids CYSO general manager Joshua Simonds.
Actually, it’s just the usual holiday fetishizing from MMJ, which released 2000’s My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style EP and has plans to issue a charity-benefiting picture disc this season. Afterward, Blankenship and Broemel (whose father, Robert, is a former principal bassoonist of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and a CYSO grad) are flipping through a picture-laden novelization of The Karate Kid Part II, a gift from Hallahan’s schoolteacher spouse.
“Does it have that one scene at the end?” asks Hallahan, his interest piqued by the sight of Ralph Macchio in a kimono. “Live … or die!”
On the other side of the room, Simonds is ripping on the local media’s lackluster press coverage. “WXRT said something like, ‘And My Morning Jacket is playing with … a youth orchestra.’ A youth orchestra?” He mentions the initial collaboration between MMJ and the CYSO in November 2006, a direct result of the band’s association with the Boston Pops and the impetus for Lolla’s duet. “When we did the Riviera (Theatre), no one had mics,” says Simonds. “It was like, ‘Oh, look, there are kids up there. And the band is wearing tuxedos!’ You couldn’t hear much.”
This time, they’re prepared. When practice resumes, the difference between the two sessions is like comparing a VFW to Carnegie Hall. There are huge smiles all around during the second, amplified run-through. “Sweet pickles!” exclaims James on more than one high point, prompting bewildered chortles from the orchestra. When the set gets back around to “Move On Up,” he instructs the players to take the coda and make it their own.
“This is the last song, so you can improv,” says James. “Go buck wild!” Emboldened by his advice, the string section almost saws its instruments in half during a ferocious eight-bar fermata.
At 6 p.m., a stack of pizzas arrive: pepperoni for the kids and cheese for James, a vegetarian for the better part of the last year. It’s announced during this dinner break that a consensus has been reached to cancel tomorrow afternoon’s rehearsal. The guest players have integrated themselves so well that another session doesn’t seem necessary.
Before leaving, several of the students finally drop their straight-faced, all-business demeanors. “Will you sign my sheets?” asks Amy, a violinist, thrusting her music forward. “On ‘Gideon’—that’s my favorite song.” Another girl, Betsy, is gathering autographs for friends. “Oh my god, they’re gonna die!” she gasps.
“You guys rock,” says Amy on her way out the door.
James and Hallahan, friends since the fourth grade, share a hug, while Koster rounds up takers to cross the street and catch French duo Daft Punk, whose set starts in 15 minutes.
“We’re ready,” says James.
“I see you got our order right.”
Joshua Simonds enters My Morning Jacket’s Lollapalooza trailer and is immediately given a magnum of Grey Goose vodka. He smiles. There are certain jobs at the mammoth Chicago music festival that anyone would want. Board operator for the Hold Steady isn’t such a bad gig (along with the stellar sound, the rowdy Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis band morphed its Saturday set into a raucous outdoor birthday party for its head engineer), and prop master for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs promises to be entertaining (sporting various metallic headdresses and a leather leotard, singer/sex goddess Karen O resembles the S&M love slave of Cher and Gene Simmons).
There also are certain jobs that no one in their right mind wants. Like, say, crowd control for the Stooges (“Thanks a lot, Ig,” vents one frustrated security guard corralling the throng of band-invited stage crashers) or sign-language translator for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (frontman Alec Ounsworth’s unintelligible lyrics are often interpreted by a shrug). And then there’s the person who must navigate nearly two dozen impressionable teenagers and their pricey instruments through Lollapalooza’s backstage sea of debauched rock stars, free-flowing draft beer and open doobie rotations. Lucky for Simonds, the kids in the CYSO are pros.
At the south end of Grant Park, an errant Rex Grossman pass from Soldier Field, Simonds and two pupils are living out every wet-behind-the-ears music journalist’s dream: They’re conducting an ABC News interview with MMJ inside the band’s trailer. Before going on camera, the students, Dave and Betsy, hand James a list of questions to prescreen.
“First one, nope,” says James in straight-faced jest. “Second one, no. Third one, definitely not.”
He does actually nix one, however, about the origins of the band’s name: “Not necessary, really.” (Incidentally, it’s not James’ favorite topic; more than one magazine profile has cited a jacket he found with the letters “MMJ” stenciled on the back, while James tells MAGNET it’s just a non sequitur he remembers scrawling down in a middle-school notebook.)
Four of MMJ’s five members are crammed onto a couch in the cozy room. (Blankenship, who has a well-known wizard fetish, is off conducting a separate radio interview. The station’s call letters: WZRD.) In a chair next to the band, the CYSO’s representatives are holding a microphone and looking very much the part of intrepid field reporters. The segment’s producers gently suggest to the kids that they give their introduction a dry run before the tapes start rolling. Ever the pragmatist, James has some advice for ABC, too: “You’d better record the practice intro, just in case it’s so fucking awesome.”
The subsequent interview turns out to be similarly inspired. James opens up to the kids about the band’s early influences (“We were lucky to grow up during a time with great commercial radio, Nirvana and R.E.M.”) and the geneses of his songs (“It’s like this fetus just pops into my head, and the guys turn it into a real child”). On the subject of becoming a successful musician, he shares some personal trade secrets: “Make sure all your equipment is subpar, then get a shitty van and drive around the country. That’s what we did.”
Closing out the segment, the producers request that everyone engage in one of those awkward, “everyone say the same thing and make it sound spontaneous!” TV promos. With a few groans, they comply. “We … want our ABC … News … now,” stutters the band, completely out of sync.
“Well, that was fucking retarded,” says Koster. They try it twice more with little success. With groans of their own, the producers mercifully give up and leave.
The CYSO performance is just one of several youth activities planned for the festival weekend. MMJ took the day off Saturday, but James still stopped by the Kidzapalooza Stage to entertain future hipsters with his banjitar, a half-banjo/half-guitar hybrid that he played during his four-song acoustic set. (Says James, “Most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done in a while.”) Earlier today, Broemel participated in the Gibson Guitar Shredding contest, in which young fans took turns having a Hendrix-style six-string conversation with the MMJ guitarist. (The winner was awarded a gleaming, golden-hued Les Paul Epiphany.)
It’s now 15 minutes before show time, and back at the trailer, Hallahan is doing his best to dispel the band’s kid-friendly reputation.
“You prepped the kids, right?” Hallahan asks Simonds and Dodson. “‘Whatever you do, do not look them in the eye … Look down, look down!’”
Everyone gathers in front of My Morning Jacket’s mobile home away from home, which is undecorated save for a bare card table and a couple of folding chairs. Next door, Perry Farrell’s trailer has a faux-beach playpen replete with baby palmettos, high-powered fans and an elaborate, web-like shade overhead. Twice, Farrell gallivants by with his entourage, sipping from a coffee cup and singing loudly to himself. Two blonde boys passing through draw shouts from someone in his posse: “Hey, Peter! Bjorn!”
“Ooh, it’s a scorcher,” says Hallahan, having exited the trailer to an instant sheen of sweat. “Nice day to wear suits.”
Not just any suits, mind you. Browsing at a thrift store, James came up on five vintage eggplant-shade tuxedos. The CYSO, in turn, sought out similarly colored scrubs, and together they look like Barney Goes to Woodstock. James welcomes the entire orchestra into a massive huddle, a MMJ pre-performance ritual. He whispers a few inaudible words that get everone fired up, the circle breaks with new energy, and the masses begin to mobilize.
Walking with a purpose, the five rock stars in purple three-piece suits et off toward the noise, a field of fans awaiting their arrival and a host of high-school prodigies in tow.