Jim James solo live at The Trocadero, Philadelphia, PA, February 23, 2004

"An evening of solo & collaborative performances featuring
 Bright Eyes, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) & M. Ward"

© The Heads Of State 2004

... scroll down for another flyer/poster ...

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Indie-rockers collaborate and delight

By Tom Moon

Inquirer Music Critic

Monday night's show at the Trocadero was billed as an indie-rock songwriter round-robin, a chance to hear Conor Oberst, the earnest young leader of Omaha's critically acclaimed Bright Eyes, mix things up with Oregon troubadour M. Ward, and Jim James, lead singer of Kentucky rockers My Morning Jacket.

It was that and more. For nearly three hours, through song after graceful song about budding romance and its lonesome aftermath, these wunderkinder helped each other recast and thoroughly reanimate their works.

Perhaps mindful of Oberst's bitter dismissal of songwriters who detail their "pain in some standard refrain," the three 20-somethings made sure that there was nothing ordinary about these renditions. Intense rock anthems became hushed acoustic confessionals, awing the capacity crowd. Pieces that, on record, are built on rudimentary guy-with-guitar strumming blossomed into delicately etched, chamber-pop miniatures. The drama Oberst packs into his wobbly-inside lyrics was sharpened by Ward's flickering guitar and James' windswept, open-prairie harmonies.

If you arrived feeling sour about the state of rock and roll, tired of its cynical regurgitation and discouraged by its abandonment of nuance, you couldn't help leaving with a feeling of hope. Hearing songs such as Ward's "Vincent O'Brien" unfold one majestic step at a time, and watching the crowd follow its winding path, you sensed that there might still be demand for metaphor and intricate composition. Listening to the three voices blend on James' epic journey "Golden," you got the feeling that no matter how contrived or fad-driven the form gets, elegant, affectation-free singing remains timeless.

Ward opened the show alone, and between his droopy-lidded blues originals ("Sad, Sad Song") and tunes that lightheartedly ponder death ("Undertaker") he dropped an absolutely stunning cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance." Singing in a syrupy slow motion, with each step reinforced by unerringly precise rhythm guitar, he gave the dance song's carefree theme a lugubrious twist.

James appeared next. He sang several songs with Ward and then a few alone, including a luminous new tune, "I Can't Wait," and a version of his band's "One in the Same" that caught the drama of wrenching life decisions.

Then came Oberst, who was joined by Bright Eyes' multitalented Mike Mogus on pedal steel and assorted other stringed instruments. The two seemed eager to rearrange songs from the most recent Bright Eyes opus, Lifted.

They tore through the abrupt shifts of tempo and mood that define the hectoring "Waste of Paint," and each time they'd arrive at the clincher lines, Oberst found harrowing new ways to scream his anguish. Sometimes the songs were too wordy - listening to Oberst can seem like following a journal-writing decathalon, with each psychic slight or lover's wound providing material for another tortured verse. But the payoff lines are so clever, the situations so chillingly rendered, there's reward for those who puzzle through the verbiage.

Covers of two songs sparkled in the show's final hour. James took his sweet time interpreting the song Willie Nelson popularized, "Always On My Mind," and along the way highlighted emotional hues, particularly in the bridge, that are often neglected. And for the second encore selection, the three took turns singing Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country." Oberst's halting, damaged-goods vocal delivery made one verse especially sullen, and then James and Ward, singing in close formation, took the same melody and sent it skyward.

© Chris Hoke 2004

My Morning Jacket Live 2004