“Modern-day Louisville to me is a very happy place,” Jim James wrote in a recent article for Louisville Magazine, reminiscing about his childhood in the River City and ruminating on the future. “I feel very excited to be a part of this wonderful and wide family of new friends and old pals that stretch back before birth and out beyond the grave… I have always felt extremely fortunate and proud to have been born here, and cherish that as part of my own earthly identity.” This past Saturday, when he and his band My Morning Jacket took the stage at the tenth running of the Forecastle Festival, it was the audience that felt the fortune of welcoming their once and future neighbors back to the city that raised them.
MMJ was almost certainly the most anticipated act of Forecastle this year. While the band’s commercial and artistic success would merit the hype, its notoriety was not the reason tens of thousands of fans of all stripes packed the Mast Stage on Saturday night, despite looming grey clouds and a delayed schedule. It was the catharsis of welcoming Louisville’s native sons home at long last that magnetized the enormous crowd. It was the satisfaction of seeing how the loyalty of the city’s musical community has transformed Forecastle into the “little festival that could.” And it was the simple, undeniable love of MMJ's singular music that blew Waterfront Park away for one cherished evening. “This is a show that has been ten years in the making,” J.K. McKnight declared a half hour before the set began, flanked by Mayor Greg Fischer and tantalizingly enormous guitar amps. And while MMJ will likely return for future Forecastles, the electricity of this year’s performance is something that will be locked away for posterity, never to be recreated.
The billowing storm clouds that threatened up until the very start of the show were ultimately omens of the thunderous twenty-two-song set the band delivered over the course of nearly three hours. A thumping bass and rolling fog announced the touch-down of the quintet around 10:30 p.m., and when lead singer Jim James finally took his place in front of the mic, sporting a characteristically kooky poncho and a mane of living hair, the audience was nearly sent into convulsions. A spine-tingling performance of “The Dark” capped off the evening, a witty move on the band’s part when you consider that the second line of the song reads “no one ever screams anymore.” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band quickly cameoed on a spooky, soulful rendition of “Holdin’ on to Black Metal” off the newest MMJ album, Circuital. The sweaty groove anthem, with its undulating guitar licks and shotgun horns, clutched like a demonic possession, while “Wordless Chorus,” mined from the 2005 album Z, exorcised through the power of sheer funk. The curation of old favorites continued with “I’m Amazed,” “Anytime,” and “It Beats 4 U,” as James and guitarist Carl Broemel furiously whipped their hair over the cacophony of rock in its purest uncompromised form. A nod to George Harrison, whose songs were covered exclusively in James’s 2007 EP Tribute To, was offered in “Isn’t it a Pity,” which brought guest guitarist Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 to the stage for an everlasting out solo. Aging MMJ rarities “Mahgeetah” –which had the crowd chanting under its spell – and “The Bear” bookended a sonic cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” complete with guitar work that took ears to the next atmosphere. The Band was also honored by a cover of “Makes No Difference,” perhaps in memoriam of the late, great Levon Helm, and the hypnotic, ambient twisting of the classic chords proved that the torch of great bands of the past has been handed off to James and Company, riders of a new sound. Late highlights of the show were the spectacles of “Smokin from Shootin” and “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 2,” brothers off of Evil Urges with comparable surprise endings. The fury of the band’s first few numbers returned as Patrick Hallahan’s drum work lit a frenetic fire under a rumbling, Fender-driven cascade of intergalactic riffs. “Oh, this feeling is wonderful – don’t you ever turn it off!” James rang out across the throngs of mesmerized rockers as if reading his audience’s mind. Before inviting Andrew Bird on stage to pierce the finale with violin magic, James thanked all those in attendance: “You’re alright. We’re alright. It all feels right.” And as the outer space instrumental mystery of “Gideon” meandered up, up, and away, taking the whole place along for the ride, it was evident truer words could not have been spoken.
While this “prodigal sons” performance felt incredibly momentous, My Morning Jacket is still ultimately a band composed of five normal guys from Louisville who love their hometown. At times throughout the night James seemed almost Christ-like, waving his arms over a multitude of enthralled fans while the wind gushed around him, and throwing his head back in transformative ecstasy during particularly powerful solos. Then there were other moments like the wacky encore cover of Wham!’s “Careless Whisper,” during which the band threw bananas into the audience while singing “Go, go, bananas, ‘nanas!” It’s patches in time like those, when a primeval sense of place breaks down the barriers between the ordinary and extraordinary, and when a beautiful, weird, blooming city on the Ohio River becomes the most intimate place on earth, that make Forecastle and My Morning Jacket the best that Louisville has ever offered.