South Carolina's Band of Horses command a large audience of their own and merit every minute of the one-hour opening set. Their big, dreamy sound -- littered with organ, harmonica and steel guitar -- is a natural accompaniment to My Morning Jacket's balance of ethereal density. During "Infinite Arms" they went low enough on the register to rumble the gut. New track "Slow Cruel Hand" is more melodic and straightforward, harkening the '70 heyday of the singer-songwriter.
Even though their new album "Mirage Rock" will be released next month, Band of Horses only indulged in one other new track, "Everything's Gonna be Undone" -- a loud, folky-harmonized sing-along that pairs well with "Older."
Guitar problems during "The Great Salt Lake" didn't slow the band. Vocalist/guitarist Ben Bridwell powered through several guitar changes with good humor and tenacity. Instead of succumbing to the unpredictable perils of playing live, Bridwell and band went with the flow, using the imperfections to kick off a soaring, bombastic ending.
There are perks to seeing My Morning Jacket outside. Their music lends itself to views of bright starry skies and warm breezes for wafting herbal aromas. But if they're going to be inside, they need to be at a venue like the Peabody. Contained in the acoustically-perfect walls of an opera house, the band's sound expands and soars. It's not just loud; it's enveloping, all-encompassing and palatable in the deepest pit of the torso.
The band built to the point of takeover through "Master Plan" and "It Beats 4 U' before "Circuital," when frontman Jim James started playing to the crowd, encouraging them to join his church by reaching out to the masses with his acoustic guitar, an instrument not expected to bring an explosion of white light and controlled noise.
After the blast, the band returned to the tight rhythmic confines of "Outta My System." With such a charismatic frontman and the ever-present threat of Carl Broemel and James' guitar attacks, sometimes MMJ's rhythm section gets lost in the noise. Fact is, drummer Patrick Hallahan, bassist Tom Blankenship and keyboardist Bo Koster are what keep the band from swirling into the jam band abyss. By staying solid and grounded, often in simple three-quarter time, they provide strength and balance to the often otherworldliness happening with the guitars and vocals. With the tight and steady beat, James and Broemel are free to dip into the loose noodling of "Rollin' Back."
Not that James sticks to just guitar and vocals. With a towel on his head, James opened "Tonight I Want to Celebrate With You" with the sparkling digital twinkling of his electronic autoharp, underscored by the earthy depth of Koster's pedal-steel guitar. As they moved into "What a Wonderful Man," the spaciness vanished, replaced by a massive electric guitar onslaught that fed into a jammy, well-paced "Mahgeetah," filled with plenty of teasing stops and drags to a soaring ending.
Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses joined James for a verse-trading duet "Wonderful (The Way I Feel)," after James tried to explain the City Museum to Bridwell. With similar vocal timbres and inflections, James and Bridwell are well-suited vocal partners, both evocative and calm. The feeling continued after Bridwell's departure, into "Where to Begin" and the opening of "Steam Engine" that devolved into a drawn-out jam with James generating feedback with his forehead against his guitar strings.
For the George Harrison cover "Isn't it a Pity," they started delicate before breaking down into a controlled guitar squall. Pushing the dense volume levels even further, Bridwell and his bandmate Tyler Ramsey joined My Morning Jacket partway through the jam. Bridwell, with guitar around his neck, pounded a tambourine while Ramsey stood behind him, arms wrapped around Bridwell, playing the guitar while Bridwell contributed falsetto harmonies.
James was back in his cape, and in the spotlight, for "Victory Dance." He's not much for stage banter, instead communicating through much bigger methods -- the wild, flailing curls, the military cape, the towel on his head -- to minister to the audience. He gives these subtle cues amidst the musical chaos he creates. And not-so-subtle cues; when he stalks the stage and motions for the crowd to rise, they do, giving the energy and intensity James demands. Wordlessly, he maintains his messianic demeanor through "Wordless Chorus," "The Day is Coming," "Touch Me, I'm Going to Scream," finally erupting during the song's second part, screaming, pulling out a Flying V guitar to raise the finale. All without a change in the beat.
The beat slowed for "Holdin' on to Black Metal," but nothing quieted. James' falsetto was nearly buried in layers of guitar that continued into set closer "One Big Holiday," when it was hard to separate the orchestration from the audience's voices. The song concluded with the steady heartbeat of Blankenship's bass -- the foundation for MMJ's best performances -- before a bombastic, almost clichéd, big-rock ending.
James began the single encore without the band, professing his love and connection with St. Louis and recent collaborator Jay Farrar before performing an understated, acoustic "I Will Be There When You Die." Any My Morning Jacket song could be played with this stripped-down treatment and be just as heartfelt as the giant versions that dominate their shows.
The full band returned for a soaring "I'm Amazed" and concluded with the reggae-infused rarity, "Phone Went West." They ended as they played, with James in full attack while the band kept everything in place -- steady and rooted.
Band of Horses set list:
The First Song
Slow Cruel Hand
No One's Gonna Love You
Everything's Gonna Be Undone
The Great Salt Lake
My Morning Jacket set list:
It Beats 4 U
Outta My System
Tonight I Want to Celebrate with You
What a Wonderful Man
Where to Begin
Isn't it a Pity
The Day is Coming
Touch Me, I'm Going to Scream, Pt. 1
Touch Me, I'm Going to Scream, Pt. 2
Holding on to Black Metal
One Big Holiday
I Will Be There When You Die
Phone Went West