Live at Red Rocks
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Live at Red Rocks

My Morning Jacket’s August 2019 concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

The Spiritual and the Surreal

3 Min Read

Friday, August 2, 2019, was one of those nights at Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver. The sky was clear and black, and singer Jim James had a spiritual epiphany that complemented the big, spacey, country rock of his band, My Morning Jacket, and the light show that bathed the stage in symmetrical neon polygons and choreographed strobes.

“Don’t forget to look that way and see the birth canal of the universe,” James, wearing a big beard, sleeveless T-shirt and shoulder-length hair, instructed the crowd during this performance, which the band webcasted in June 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re all born again every time we come to this place.”

Since forming in 1998 in Louisville, Kentucky, as a rickety-sounding band whose slow-paced harmonies recalled the otherworldly country, blues and rock ‘n’ roll qualities of The Band and “Dusty In Memphis”-era Dusty Springfield, My Morning Jacket has expanded into something more psychedelic, jammy and experimental. Its sound is built on James’ two major talents: hopeful songs expressed in universal language and a high, friendly voice he can jack up to a wailing falsetto. Everything else is layered for atmosphere, from Carl Broemer’s steel-guitar and saxophone touches to Bo Koster’s fuzzy, echoey synths to drummer Patrick Hallahan’s rocking fist-pumps.

At Red Rocks, the effect is a soothing, uplifting two hours and 45 minutes. James, 41, arrives on stage looking like space-alien royalty with a flowing, colorful cape hugging his shoulders and an electronic synthesizer hanging from his neck. The band opens with “Victory Dance,” a gospel-inspired rocker so big it recalls The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” before it closes with Native American-style chanting, orange lasers and explosions. James strips down to his T-shirt for the more layered follow-up, “Circuital,” and its references to ending up “right back in the same place that we started out.”

The quintet (completed by bassist Tom Blankenship) plunges into Pearl Jam-style, double-guitar power chords, powering through anthems like “Anytime,” “Xmas Curtain” and, adding an effective keyboard-driven funk feel, “First Light” — all collapsing by the end into elaborate jams between James and Broemel, both superb guitarists. The band frequently lightens the pace, with James airing his George Harrison admiration on the pretty, well-written “Heartbreaking Man” and downshifting into mellow material like “Slow Slow Tune” and the countryish “Smokin’ from Shootin’.” Any time a song needs a boost of energy, or soul, James lifts his voice to an extended wail. 

For better or worse, the set’s centerpiece is “Dondante.” The fan favorite lasts for eight minutes on the band’s 2005 classic “Z” but expands here to at least half an hour, with repetitive guitar solos, musical peaks and valleys, and lasers timed to skittery rhythms. The reference point is clearly the Grateful Dead’s “Drums/Space” concert-staple sequence, and the group plays much of the song in the shadows, leaving an overhead disco ball as the visual focal point in the video.

‘I’m going where there ain’t no disease.’

From there, My Morning Jacket mostly speeds up, closing on a hard-rock note with “Anytime,” which seems like a lost Judas Priest hit. Its most observant song, “Wonderful (The Way I Feel),” an acoustic singer-songwriter piece about having the sun on your shoulders and the wind at your back, appears as the first encore. “I’m going where there ain’t no police,” James sings. “I’m going where there ain’t no disease.”

Within months of this show, the COVID-19 pandemic would kick in, then George Floyd’s murder, giving James’ words an unintended prescience. It’s almost shocking when he sings these lines and, from the surreal vantage point of watching this video in early 2021, so is the shoulder-to-shoulder Red Rocks crowd of 9,000 fans, drinking and swaying together on a perfect summer night.

Steve Knopper is a Billboard editor at large, former Rolling Stone editor, author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age” and “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” and a contributor to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

Steve Knopper is a Billboard editor at large, former Rolling Stone editor, author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age” and “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” and a contributor to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. He lives in Denver, Colorado.

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