Long a favorite on the summer rock fest circuit, My Morning Jacket curiously took a break from the portojohn-and-sunscreen scene this year and instead booked multi-night stands in some of the finest theaters across America.
That list now includes the newly redesigned Northrop Auditorium, where the guitar-ennobling Kentucky indie-rock vets settled in for the first of two nights Friday to fully test the new space’s production qualities — and, it turned out, fans’ patience, too.
As is often the case when MMJ issues a new album, Friday’s crowd didn’t know quite what to expect. The band’s records have been consistently inconsistent — a sharp contrast to the rabid reception for its live shows — and the latest one, “The Waterfall,” is especially all over the place.
Adding intrigue to the two-night stand, MMJ recruited two fast-rising Twin Cities acts to each open one of the local shows (plus and a couple other tour dates). Rap powerhouse Lizzo takes up the slot Saturday, while suburban jangly pop-rock wunderkinds Hippo Campus earned the honors Friday.
The underclassman-aged quartet sounded remarkably well-schooled, and the pristine Northrop acoustics and a few months of touring only amplified their impressive precision. The guys made Friday’s big test even harder on themselves by playing a majority of new tunes, but their own fans got to dance in the aisles to “Suicide Saturday” and “Little Grace” early in the half-hour set before ushers shooed them away.
My Morning Jacket focused heavily on new material, too, but peppered it throughout the band’s 2-hour-plus set. The new album’s opening song, “Believe (Nobody Knows),” made a dramatic concert opener, with the band playing lit-up behind a curtain that dropped once the chorus started. A couple songs later, “Compound Fractures” came off like a pleasantly breezy Supertramp melodic haze.
However, more often than not, the new tunes didn’t pan out. The CSN&Y-like, falsetto-tinged “Like a River” drowned the momentum toward the one-hour mark, a lull that lasted through the diehards-only oldie “War Begun” and the plodding “I Will Sing You Songs.” The second hour of the set dragged even more with the dull midtempo new tune “Thin Line” and the weirdly disco-ized, sax-sexy “First Light.”
Wait a while, and MMJ usually produces moments as magical as any rock band on tour these days. Those were fewer and further between Friday.
The musical highlight in the first half of the set was a highly charged “Off the Record,” but the sentimental highlight proved to be “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” Frontman Jim James — coincidentally or not sporting a jacket riddled with rainbow-colored streaks — introduced the sweet acoustic standard by referencing Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.
“It gives you hope for humanity,” the rocker, a Grizzly Adams look-alike, declared in his Kentuckian drawl, to cheers.
The second half of the set wasn’t exactly roaring. James and his crew tested fans’ faithfulness with a series of lengthy, slow-building jammers, including the 2005 deep cut “Dondante” and reggae-flavored oldie “Phone Went West” — an elastic pull in one direction that wouldn’t finally snap back until the encore, when they blasted through the full-tilt rockers “Holding onto Black Metal,” “Anytime” and “Mahgeetah.”
If the point of playing a two-nighter was to treat fans to two distinct set lists, Saturday’s attendees missed some unusual MMJ turns, but they can take solace knowing the dullest new songs popped up Friday, and plenty of fan favorites were left out.