Photo of My Morning Jacket by Laura Jerele
w/ Devon Gilfillian
I’ve been a fan of My Morning Jacket since first discovering them in college in 2010, when my maturing mind was first introduced to the wonderful world of Americana and alt-country-inflected indie rock. Much like their peers in Wilco, I knew that MMJ was often touted as a legendary live act, with their high-intensity and jam-focused live performances earning them a cult following among the Bonnaroo set. There is a lore to MMJ as a touring act that is comparable to that of the Grateful Dead, Phish, or the aforementioned Wilco, with MMJ devotees regularly waxing nostalgic about moments from specific shows and festival appearances.
Despite MMJ playing in St. Louis several times in the past decade, including three previous performances at the Stifel alone, their November 7th show at the Stifel Theatre was my first time seeing them live. After years of hearing MMJ fans evangelize about how “you gotta see them live to really get it,” I was thrilled to finally witness these saviors of Southern rock for myself.
The evening began at 7:00PM with a set from Nashville-based soul artist Devon Gilfillian and his band, who also opened for MMJ during their European tour earlier this summer. Gilfillian has released two albums of original material to date—2020’s Black Hole Rainbow and 2023’s Love You Anyway—with his setlist for the night featuring songs from both albums. Like many great modern soul artists, Gilfillian’s music fuses a variety of styles, incorporating elements of pop, funk, blues, and psychedelic rock. Songs like the eponymous “Love You Anyway” provided an excellent showcase for his impressive vocal range, becoming a gospel sing-along as he led the audience through the chorus. In addition to being an extremely gifted vocalist, Gilfillian is also a superb guitarist, with an incredibly tight backing band—this was particularly evident in the material from Black Hole Rainbow, which leans more into blues rock territory than the more pop-driven material from Love You Anyway.
Gilfillian was charming, charismatic, and a consummate hype man, proclaiming his excitement to be touring with MMJ, “the greatest fucking rock band on the planet”—everything you would want from an opener! I would gladly recommend Gilfillian to fans of other eclectic neo-soul artists like Thundercat and Anderson Paak.
MMJ took to the stage around 8:30PM, the band flanked by the ever-present stuffed bears that have been part of their stage design since their inception. The set began with the subdued acoustic number “At Dawn” from their 2001 album of the same name, before launching into “The Way That He Sings” from the same album. MMJ is famous for playing a different setlist every night while on tour, and their November 7th performance was no exception—every album in their discography was represented with at least two or three songs, and they even pulled out a number from their 2000 Christmas music EP (“Xmas Curtain”). This impressive versatility is a strong part of MMJ’s appeal as a live act—no two MMJ performances are exactly the same—and it also helps to showcase the many different sides of the band, from the more country rock-oriented material on their first three records through the more experimental, indie pop adjacent direction they took during the mid-2000s. This contrast was abundantly clear when the band transitioned to “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Pt. 1” from Evil Urges, with frontman Jim James striking karate poses as he darted across the stage to the song’s infectious rhythm. It is difficult to overstate what a phenomenal vocalist Jim James is—one might be forgiven for listening to the band’s studio recordings and thinking “There’s no way he can pull that off live,” but rest assured, he absolutely does.
Moments of extended improvisation are a core feature of MMJ’s live performances, and there were many impressive displays of musicianship throughout the evening. Whereas this can sometimes come across as meandering or self-indulgent even when done by extremely talented bands, MMJ’s jamming always felt purposeful, with the extended soloing from Jim James, guitarist Carl Broemel, and keyboardist Bo Koster adding greater depth and emotional climax to the songs. The solos were always tasteful, emotive, and accompanied by subtle rhythmic changes, making them feel like a natural extension of the original song rather than simply being a showcase for the performers’ endurance.
The most striking moment of the show came when Jim James gave a solo performance of “St. Louis Blues,” a traditional blues standard made famous by artists like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. Naturally, this moment of regional pride was greeted by cheers from the audience—probably not coincidentally, the Blues were playing a home game the very same night (the Enterprise Center is on the same block as the Stifel Theatre). James was eventually joined by Broemel, who accompanied him on pedal steel guitar, before the rest of the band joined as they seamlessly transitioned into “Wonderful (The Way I Feel).” Other highlights of the performance included “Only Memories Remain,” in which Devon Gilfillian took to the stage to join Jim James for a duet, his soulful vocals transforming the song into a sensual slow-burn.
This was the first show I had ever attended at the Stifel Theatre (formerly known as the Peabody Opera House), and I don’t think I could have picked a better act for my inaugural visit. I was incredibly impressed with the theater’s excellent acoustics and the truly outstanding stage lighting. Even the theater’s disco ball was put to excellent use during songs like “Wordless Chorus,” creating a dazzling light display that filled the theater. There is something incredibly unique about seeing a rock band perform at an opera house, and I can see why MMJ has made the Stifel its venue of choice for their last several St. Louis performances.
MMJ wrapped up their fall 2023 tour earlier this month with three performances at the iconic Chicago Theatre, with one night featuring a performance of their 2003 album It Still Moves in its entirety. Their next venture will be their annual One Big Holiday Music Festival, which will be held in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico this April. | David Von Nordheim