As soon as you arrived in the vicinity of the KFC Yum Center, you sensed something special in the air. The smell of sizzling brats from the street vendors, bars buzzing loudly with people spilling from the doors, and surreally attired concert-goers gave the whole place a festival atmosphere that only continued inside the arena. Recognized as one of the best rock bands in the country, My Morning Jacket shows are always an event, but in their hometown on a Halloween weekend with a symphony orchestra behind them, the level of excitement is raised above the usual.
In doing their part to showcase one of our city's cultural treasures, MMJ pulled out all of the stops in sharing the stage with the Louisville Youth Orchestra, who got it to themselves for a little while, opening for Wax Fang at 7:30. They did themselves proud in a fun set that opened with Metallica's "Orion" and worked seamlessly through Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" and LYO conductor Jason Seber's own arrangement of MMJ's "Into the Woods." Showing their classical chops, they played part of Beethoven's Fifth before winding up with a little Led Zeppelin.
Wax Fang, resplendent in Tron-inspired costumes, performed a space-rock set, a bit hampered by some feedback issues, but otherwise pleasing the steadily increasing crowd filling up the floor and reserved seating. Their set wrapped up with the epically sprawling and just-released single "Astronaut Part 1."
Anticipation grew for the hometown heroes, who finally arrived to the pulsing heartbeat opening of "Wordless Chorus" and the devilish glow of stage lights playing over the band and the young symphony orchestra behind them on a riser. I tried hard to imagine the excitement I would feel as a 15-year-old violinist in front of a frothing arena crowd with Jim James gamboling wildly over the stage, and the thought actually made me a little choked up, which is ultimately what was so cool about this concert. Sometimes I couldn't even hear the orchestra through the crush of guitars and Patrick Hallahan's mad drumming, but it didn't matter -- there they were, bowing away on the strings, and no doubt having an experience that will last the rest of their lives.
MMJ was at its best, full of energy, playing songs that reached all the way back through their catalog, including "Evelyn is not Real," which might be one of the first MMJ songs I ever remember listening to -- on an Oxford American CD compilation. They hit all the favorites, "Gideon," "Mahgeeta," "Dondante," and a fair number of songs from their last release, Evil Urges. I love to hear "Highly Suspicious" live -- a weirdly paranoid and highly idiosyncratic song with Tom Blankenship's thumping bass underneath James' sky-high falsetto. No one has a voice quite like James -- from country crooning, smooth and light, to ethereal wails and right-on rock vocals, he nails them all effortlessly. Carl Broemel was his usual stellar self on lead guitar (pedal steel and sax), contributing one of his own songs to the set, "Carried Away."
Coming back for the encore, MMJ arrived as a quintet of Colonel Sanders, complete with white, wavy wigs, the suit, and string ties -- what could be more perfect for Halloween in this arena? There was a weird pantomime of the Colonel presenting someone in a chicken suit with a stuffed heart (!) -- I'm not sure what message to draw from that, but it was a sweet touch of humor that led into the night's final stretch, including the much loved "Off the Record," a show-stopping final number with LYO -- Curtis Mayfield's soul classic "Move On Up" that really showed off the horn section, and of course, "One Big Holiday," which this evening surely was.
The Squallis Puppeteers joined the band for the final song, bringing the house down, along with a shower of black, white, and orange balloons. On a night when old school robots, flights of fairies, bananas, and the entire cast of Star Wars was dancing in the aisles, it would be hard to find a more fitting Halloween party or one more filled with civic pride. Young and old, Cats and Cards, pirates and sea captains, could all agree for a change -- My Morning Jacket loves their city and puts on a great rock show.
Backed up by the Louisville Youth Orchestra
(Photo credits: Lee Burchfield)