Photo by Stephen Bloch
When Jim James took the stage at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer, he gazed upon a sold-out crowd eager to celebrate his 35th birthday. Fans wearing party hats dotted the pit, a few people unfurled a giant birthday banner, and someone even hoisted a cake on stage. James surveyed the cheering audience with a smile and gently picked up the cake to place it offstage. He then returned to center stage, bowed a “Namaste” greeting, and quickly segued into performance mode: arms outstretched dramatically to the sides, head tilted to the ceiling, frozen in place under blue light as his band started the eerie intro to “A.E.I.O.U. (State of the Art)”—the first song on his debut solo album, Regions of Light and Sound of God.
Regions is the latest iteration of James’ ever-evolving creative canon. The My Morning Jacket frontman has spent more than a decade on an odyssey of musical personas—the barefoot Kentuckian troubadour, the jumping-while-shredding-the-Flying-V rock star, and the peace-preaching yogi, to name a few. (The constant is his mane of hair and ever-present beard.) The Regions tour has introduced the newest and most theatrical variant of James as a performer: suited up, assertively roaming the stage with a mic in hand, and breaking out non-stop dance moves.
James played through the entirety of Regions joined by a four-piece backing band —stretching it well past its original run time with inventive embellishments like extended improvisations and saxophone solos by James himself. Midway through “Dear One,” the rest of the band left drummer Dave Givan alone on stage as he pounded through a drum solo, then suddenly sprinted back to their spots in unison to finish the song. “All is Forgiven,” a smoldering, creepy rumination on the devil, turned even more ominous when the band suddenly broke into an uptempo techno breakdown of super heavy bass, electrified drumming, and frantic saxophone wailing – only to return sharply to the song’s cascading crescendo. “God’s Love to Deliver” started out sounding familiar but morphed into a monster psychedelic jam that ended the set with strobe lights and a bizarre sound clip of a man talking.
In less-freaky moments James channeled his energy into raw simplicity. He played the instrumental “Exploding” on an acoustic guitar while standing in place at very edge of the stage with his eyes closed the entire time. The seven-song encore—dominated by selections from his side projects, Monsters of Folk and New Multitudes—began with a pretty pair of My Morning Jacket songs, “Bermuda Highway” and “Wonderful”. James, alone on stage under a single spotlight, let the power of his soaring vocals loose as the crowd sang along
James didn’t speak to the crowd during the first set, but engaged them with quirky antics: E.T.-like finger-touches to fans’ outstretched hands, intense stares into the eyes looking up at him, striking poses and staying motionless until the audience yelled enough to make him smile and return to singing. Such newfound acts of charisma hint that he’s beginning to cultivate his own brand of performer-audience rapport—especially since he’s recently praised Bruce Springsteen’s ability to connect with a crowd as a major source of personal inspiration.
In a symbolic act of camaraderie at the very end of the night after closing with the Woody Guthrie song “Changing World,” James picked up a small bear statue that resides on stage at every show and raised it above his head like a sacred icon. Then he carried it across the stage, holding it in reach of the audience, and wordlessly encouraged them to touch the prized possession. The crowd surged forward, clamoring to pet the statue—proving that James’ tendency to take unexpected turns is his most captivating trait.