Jim James: Shadows & Light
Photo by Dino Perrucci
Lest James get too confident, there’s always someone there to keep things in perspective for him, he says, laughing about attending a recent humbling performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Louisville’s Yum Center. “It was so inspiring, it made me feel like a fuckin’ total amateur, like the worst goddamn excuse for a musician.”
Twelve years earlier, James caught The Boss in Cincinnati, sitting in the nosebleeds. He says that while he’s always admired him—particularly the album Nebraska —he’s never been a hardcore fan. And while there was a palpable excitement in town surrounding the sold-out Louisville show—Springsteen rarely plays there—James almost felt reluctant in going. (“Yeah, I’ll go see him and it’ll be fun. But I don’t feel like I’m going to see Marvin Gaye or something,” he thought.)
“But, man, it was un-believable! he says. “From the second they started, his energy was so fucking positive. And his interaction with the crowd—motherfucker had a wireless mic and crowd-surfed, this 60-year-old man with the energy of a 20 year old! He’s proving that age is nothing but a number.
“And he’s such a good example of connecting with your crowd and making the crowd feel equal, making the whole fucking place feel touched,” he continues. “I felt like there wasn’t one person in the place that didn’t feel like Bruce Springsteen gave a shit about us, because you see Dylan, you see Neil, and sometimes you feel like those guys don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t care if you’re there or not. They’re bummed, they’re fuckin’ dark. It’s like this big dark thing. But with Bruce, it’s like this giant celebration and everybody is welcome and equal. And he’s always championing progressive causes, and fighting for the president and fighting to help the common man. It was a huge eye-opener. I was like, ‘How can I walk that path? How can I be positive, healthy and hopefully, play forever, ‘til I die?’ Because that’s what Bruce does—he’s gonna play until he dies, and he does it well. And he’s never compromised. It’s amazing.”
Down the street from the fictitious McKittrick Hotel, there’s a restaurant in a real hotel, where James, having given us the low down on Regions, is now eliciting belly laughs for his impersonation of Garth Hudson, the bearded pianist, keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist of The Band who, in some circles, is known as much for his introverted, enigma-like personality as his musical virtuosity. The two first met a few months ago at the “Love for Levon” concert celebrating the late Band singer-drummer Levon Helm.
“That was a thrill,” says James of the event that saw My Morning Jacket play with Hudson and back Roger Waters toward the end of star-studded evening. “I got to watch him play the intro to ‘Chest Fever’ and we played with him on ‘The Weight.’ We were talking about playing and he said to me”—James begins smiling, before twisting his voice into a perfect impersonation of Hudson’s, which is part introverted ‘60s savant, part creepy woodsman, all delivered in something of a whispery, glacial cadence—“‘We should play together sometime. I play some things that you might not know about, like turkey call and bass melodica.’
“It was so awesome!” James laughs, eyes wide. “It’s like, ‘You would say that, you wizard.’”
The fact that James and My Morning Jacket have been fortunate enough to blaze a similar path as Hudson and Helm—not necessarily stylistically, but in terms of accolades and sheer fan devotion—isn’t lost on him. It’s not a stretch to imagine future generations of musicians speaking with equal reverence and awe about MMJ. When it’s half-jokingly suggested that keyboardist Bo Koster is cultivating a Hudson-like mystique, James smiles. “He’d probably love to hear you say that. He’s a brilliant man.”
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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