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Soul Man: Jim James Sees the Light at New York’s McKittrick Hotel

Jim James / Photo by Loren Wohl

There was a time when the phrase “solo album from the frontman of” was a roundabout way of saying “your favorite band is about to break up.” Thankfully, we live in different times. Relatively affordable home recordings studios and the pervasive demand that our ambitious frontmen be culturally omnivorous have made the solo detour seem much less alarming, if not downright mandatory. At this point, if the singer of your favorite band doesn’t even try to release the product of their downtime noodling, you might begin to worry that they’re not ambitious enough.

My Morning Jacket seer Jim James started working on his solo debut Regions Of Light And Sound of God after injuring himself on tour in 2008 and discovering the 1929 graphic novel precursor Gods’ Man. Though it’s not much of a competition, his Kentucky-based band are by far the most exploratory group working today that could even vaguely be called Americana. From Neil Young country shuffles to outer-space metal, they are a band that never stays in one place long, and a similar sense of discovery animates Regions.

OMD keyboard sheen, industrial hip-hop beats and ecstatic soul belting have all made appearances on My Morning Jacket albums, but on Regions they serve as the building blocks for a set of songs that unabashedly seek rhythmic and spiritual uplift. As far as busmen’s holidays go, the end result is not quite on the level of, say, The Eraser or Rabbit Fur Coat, but it’s safely a notch above Phrazes For The Young.

How this would all work out live was an open question. Regions is a carefully layered quilt work of drum programming and heady synthesizers, it did not seem particularly destined to serve as a blueprint for a hair-raising live performance. But James made his name on hair-raising live performances, and he was clearly determined to make these songs soar last night at New York’s McKittrick Hotel, an early stop on his initial solo outing.

James ran through the album in its entirety, accompanied by a bassist, drummer, keyboardist and a multi-instrumentalist that switched between synthesizers, drum pads and guitar. (The musicians, and many members of the audience, began the set wearing skeleton beak masks, a remnant of Sleep No More, an interactive play that takes place at McKittrick; between the louche decor and pulsating beats behind many of the tracks, an impromptu orgy seemed within reason for a while there.) Though they retained a disco-derived thump, the backing players gave “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)” and “Actress” a looser swing in person, and James swayed gratefully, clearly happy to not be stuck behind a guitar for once. Though ever the Southern gentlemen, he did give the audience what it wanted by ripping a solo in “Dear One” before returning to his easy strut.

James’ backing band was able to replicate Region’s heady stacks of sound without overwhelming his often reverb-soaked money-maker — he spent the night sighing, pleading and, on “A New Life,” downright exploding, the goofy refrain “I think I’m really being sincere” mostly necessary. And while solo outings often have the stench of overreach and self-indulgence, James was mainly focused on keeping the crowd in motion, the only misstep a regrettable saxophone digression that ended the main set.

After a quick run through standards “It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie” and “I’m Making Believe,” James’ electronics-lined encore felt designed to remind the crowd that his interest in body moving BPMs is nothing new. And while solo renditions of “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt.1 And 2” and “Wordless Chorus” felt less fluid than they would during a My Morning Jacket set, his backing band’s rigid approach to some of MMJ’s most elastic funk tunes proved — just like Region, both on stage and record — what James is and isn’t capable of on his own. There are just some thing only a well-acquainted, chemically bonded band can do. MICHAEL TEDDER

Set List:
“State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)”
“Know Til Now”
?”Dear One”
?”A New Life”
“Of the Mother Again”
“All Is Forgiven”
“God’s Love to Deliver”

? Encore:
“It’s a Sin To Tell a Lie”
?”I’m Making Believe”
? “Victory Dance”
“Wordless Chorus”
? “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 1”
?”Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2″