My Morning Jacket brought their blend of traditional rock and indie sensibilities to Portland’s Keller Auditorium last Wednesday, September 30th and the reception they got was as raucous as it was heartfelt.  In their nearly two decades of existence, MMJ has constantly striven to experiment with their sound, and their newest album, The Waterfall, which debuted at number 11 on the Billboard charts, has provided them with a batch of fresh songs to share with their fans coast to coast. 

Their popularity has long defied the common logic that bands need to stay in the middle of the road if they want to be successful in the mainstream, but platinum albums, radio play and sold out shows around the world have told a different story.  They have stayed true to their pioneering spirit, and their work has flourished in large part thanks to their unmistakable honesty.  That and the fact that they can rock the stage as hard as any band om any night. 

The Keller Auditorium has served in the past as an opera house and home to the Portland Ballet.  It was built in 1917 and everyone from President John F. Kennedy and Led Zeppelin have graced it’s stage.  Unassuming from the outside, inside it’s towering backdrop give ample room for dramatic concert lighting, and it’s three terraced balconies as well as a wide open seat floor provide stellar sight lines and excellent acoustics.  

The echoes from those moments are long past, and Timothy Showalter, and his project Strand Of Oaks, took the stage to create a fresh blast of rock.  Showalter’s life has played out like a Greek tragedy, and he has admirably managed to channel his misfortunes into creative fuel for his songwriting and fiery onstage demeanor.  Ranging from introspective melancholy to full tilt railing at an unforgiving universe, Strand Of Oaks put on a short 45 minute set so full of kinetic energy it was hard to believe when Showalter mentioned they had driven 34 straight hours to get to the gig.  The reason they were so willing to make such an arduous trip?  “My Morning Jacket is our favorite band in the world!”  From a lot of opening acts, this might have seemed like simple pandering for a cheap cheer, but those close enough to see could tell by the look in his eye he wasn’t kidding.

As the crowd filled in the room, the lights went down just a few short minutes after SOO’s set finished. Ever since “Jim James” pulled in three friends and first took the stage, their vision has been one of rock and roll with a brain, as well as a heart. After a few line up changes, by 2004, the band was set and their ascension to the top of the modern rock world well begun. 

Soon after, they found that their propensity for strong song writing and earnest, leave it all on the stage performances was earning them both critical acclaim and an ever growing fan base.  Appearances in the movie Elizabethtown, and the David Letterman Show helped give them national exposure at a time when the rock world was in sore need of a fresh sound to rally behind.  Shortly after, a double live album, Okonokos, cemented their reputation as a live act not to be missed.

Opening their set with a bombastic “Circuital”, the band seemed to have started off in mid show form, playing loose and cohesively from the very first chord.  Drummer Patrick Hallahan deserves a lot of credit for the bands success as a live act…as capable of crashing the cymbals as anyone, yet equally capable of keeping a simmering pocket for the more quiet and explorative moments.  Carl Broemel, guitarist, mixed power chords and intricate lines all night, with “Master Plan” and the first song of their four song encore, “Mahgeetah”, standing out in particular as examples of his range.  Cutting and melodic, his tone served fine counter point to James’s rhythm playing. 

While in truth, the entire band is more than capable of stealing the crowds attention on any song, it’s the band’s front man, lead singer, chief song writer and lightning rod Jim James. James was, as always, the audience’s main focal point.

Looking more like Jeff Bridges’ famous character “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski every day, operates with an absolute confidence that must surely be a source of strength for the band to rely on.  Simply put, he is musically fearless.  While some would worry about appearances or the potential for failure as reasons to not attempt some of his sonic shenanigans, he simply plunges ahead at full speed.  Whether singing at the mic, strumming a guitar or even playing rebuilt children’s toys, there are no limits and boundaries to his performances. 

Though the entire night was a showcase for his talents, songs “Evil Urges”, “Believe” and the evening’s final tune, “One Big Holiday” put every facet of his songwriting and performance skills to the test.  His ability to relate a full range of emotions, and what’s more, to spark those same emotions in an audience, from the darkest sorrow to radiant joy was as impressive as ever, and on this Wednesday night another chapter was written in the legends of both band and theater.


Check out the full gallery below, courtesy of Rex Thomson: