There was a lot about Jim James’s performance at the 9:30 Club on Tuesday night that screamed “1973!!”: Strobe lights, bombastic interludes and codas, a drum solo (yep), masses of flowing hair. Yet James’s singular personality — earnest, committed and constantly searching — kept the nearly two-hour show from devolving into not only the morass of self-absorption, but the sadder pit of parody.
Supporting “Regions of Light and Sound of God,” his first proper solo album, James (since 1998 the leader of My Morning Jacket) charmed the sold-out club from the outset. Launching into “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.),” he wandered the lip of the stage, touching index fingers with those in the first rows, connecting both E.T. and Michelangelo style.
The main set sequentially followed the track listing of the charming but uneven record, but was hardly a note-for-note re-creation. James and his band squeezed themselves into nearly every available opening, turning spindly romantic devotionals (“A New Life”) into chugging ’50s white-soul and four-minute sideways art-folk (“God’s Love to Deliver”) into 12 minutes of turgid classic rock excess.
But still, it was pretty fun.
James’s unwavering belief in his art makes it hard not to forgive him for wanting every song to reach to a shuddering climax. So whether he was grabbing his Flying V and shredding or pasting snatches of saxophone onto “Know ’Til Now,” grumpiness about his rough treatment of the gentler songs didn’t last too long.
Even inside the excess, there was ample evidence of how wide-ranging his artistic vision is. From ’70s radio-rock to pseudo-jazz to his trademark, reverb-drenched melodic spirals, his command of rock structure is impressive. And the band behind him proved remarkably lithe — bending around each other and stepping aside to let the keyboard or guitar or electronic drums have the limelight when appropriate.
In the wake of the aforementioned “God’s Love” came a smoothing start to the encore set (which contained almost as many songs as the main performance): a lovely, bittersweet solo-acoustic rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” offered in honor of the country giant’s 80th birthday.
James followed with acoustic renditions of two MMJ staples: “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” and “Hopefully,” both featuring high-register vocal runs that prove he remains one of America’s most thrilling singers. And as he has done the entire tour, James and the band offered a handful of songs drawn from his Monsters of Folk project.
So it was a little messy and a little overdone, yet topped with sweetness and sincerity. And like almost everything James does, you could feel he meant every note of it. He really, really did. And in the end, that made it okay.
Foster is a freelance writer.