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Monday, April 22, 2013

Jim James @ The Pabst Theater

April 19, 2013

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Erik Ljung
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Solo albums can be frustrating. With no one else around to reel back a frontman's excesses, these efforts often lack self-restraint and delve headfirst through an artist's personal eclecticism. These dubious records ultimately feel more like scrapbooks than statements. Jim James' Regions of Light and Sound of God is not one of these examples. Well, not really. Of course, James' steady outfit, My Morning Jacket, already incorporates various divergent genres into their albums of late (R&B, psychedelic funk, ’80s Thai pop), so while Regions of Light and Sound of God may sound like a kid acting out his musical fantasies, it's actually James running wild in his regular habitat. The record, however, presents some of the scraggly-haired bohemian’s most refined, intimate work of his career, as well as just a few head-scratching overextensions.

For Regions of Light and Sound of God, James focused more on his voice, a detail reasserted right off the bat during his live performance at a crowded Pabst Theater Friday night. Sliding back and forth across the stage gently tapping his heels, he mainly held a microphone, singing his high-registering falsetto. There were only a few brief instances when he gave up the mic to play a Flying V guitar that rested on a custom-made stand that allowed James to solo without even picking up the instrument. It was an arresting visual. Never has a musician seemed so at ease when busting out such garish solos.

James played every instrument on Regions of Light and Sound of God (technically his solo debut, not counting his album of George Harrison covers under the pseudonym Yim Yames). With three musicians he invited on tour to capture the full sonic spectrum of the album, he sauntered through the entire record front-to-back. Perhaps exposing its weaknesses, the 38-minute track time was doubled when performed live, and not enough of these newer songs were enhanced by the space. Merely halfway through the record, the show turned into a slog that seemingly would never cease.

The night wasn’t without its highlights, however. While barely addressing the crowd, James played the amicable frontman, routinely reaching out and touching index fingers with members of the first row. There were also his gaudy yet fun sax solos, delivered without a glimpse of irony. And the ’50s crooning of “A New Life” felt particularly refreshing, mainly because it followed the startling minute-plus drum solo on “Dear One.”

The six-song encore featured four songs from James’ indie supergroup Monsters of Folk (which was two too many), the Americana nodding back to the singer’s rootsy past. He played only two from My Morning Jacket’s oeuvre, including the closing track from 2011’s Circuital, “Movin’ Away.” You couldn’t help but wish that, with such an extensive catalog, James would have had the restraint to somewhat abbreviate his new material in order to include some older gems. But this is a solo career we’re talking about.