They planned ahead and they planned right. They came from all over. Many narrowly escaped the sub-zero temperatures of their hometowns and everyone was somehow able to put a temporary hold on all the trials and tribulations of their typical workweek and head for old Mexico to attend a festival that was trying to encapsulate an ideal world within a song. This was My Morning Jacket’s “One Big Holiday.”
Many months in the making, the newly unveiled Hard Rock Hotel on the Mayan Riviera played host to a four-day fiesta curated by the band in question. A rock ‘n’ roll destination vacation for the adventurous, the all-inclusive stay-and-play festival was exclusive to those who had booked the total experience. You could come and go as you pleased, but no one from the outside was allowed entry. A strange and magical trip indeed. The Hard Rock seemed like a well-guarded fortress, but the chilling monstrosity would be no match for the Mayan sun — and the warmth of the fans who had come to take part in the experiment.
The event began on Sunday and, while My Morning Jacket was the only band scheduled to play that day, it didn’t mean the evening would be light on entertainment. They tore through two sets totaling two-and-a-half hours in a show that marked the band’s first of the year, and their first performance since Neil Young’sBridge School benefit back in October.
Suspense built as the crowd grew and dream became reality as My Morning Jacket opened with the summoning song “Circuital.” Jim James took the stage wearing south-of-the-border garb and looking like some sort of Peruvian mystic. Stars filled the sky and the ocean breeze blew the musicians’ long hair wildly about.
“First Light,” another song from “Circuital” transitioned into the much older and now classic, ‘The Way That He Sings” followed by a wonderfully strange early-set cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart.” “Heartbreakin’ Man” and “Evelyn Is Not Real” gave fans a sweet taste from the debut record while “Masterplan” was re-worked with a sinister alternate beginning. The epic “Steam Engine” ended with a comedown of shimmering keys and the drum blasts of “Smoking from Shooting” rang out like gunshots.
After a brief intermission, the band returned and laid the groundwork for a more mellow mood with the tracks “Wonderful,” “Welcome Home” and “Slow Slow Tune.” Just when it seemed that we’d reached the height of the evening’s possible awesomeness, a figure emerged from the shadows. It was Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead looking like a sun-soaked Samuel Clements (or Mark Twain, if you prefer).
The band had met and performed with Weir on last year’s tour with Bob Dylan and began in suit with “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” before running through two classic Grateful Dead tunes, “I Know You Rider” and “Brown Eyed Women.”
While My Morning Jacket refuses to acknowledge their association with jam band culture, moments like these make it hard to ignore the connection. I mean that in the best way.
After bidding farewell to Mr. Weir, the band ventured into a truncated take on their 24-minute track “Cobra,” merging it with a crowd-pleasing rendition of Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone” and ending their 20-song performance with an especially fiery version of “Mahgeetah.”
Excessive sun and open bars have been known to lead to arguments and generally bad behavior, but this wasn’t your ordinary festival setting. Unlike at most fests, everyone was here for the same reason, to see a band that prides it self on peace and love and leads by example. It was Night Two and all was well.
Opening tonight’s show was a show-sharing favorite of MMJ’s — the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Performing as an eight-piece, the multi-generational New Orleans ensemble set the mood with a 15- minute ode to their fair city. With two tubas, a trumpet, trombone clarinet, drums, keys and a saxophone, the band was dressed to the sonic nines, accessorizing with infectious smiles and unparalleled benevolence as they danced their way through their set and into everyone’s hearts.
Ending an hour-long brass-wailing set, the PHJB brought out special guest Bob Weir who had played with the band years and years ago. Adding a guitar to the mix, they merged jazz and blues and you could tell that the players were having as much fun as their audience.
My Morning Jacket was next, and while the night before had been filled with epic surprises, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that they could continue to blow the minds of the masses. A true treat for fans of the early records, the band began with “The Dark” and “Xmas Curtain,” “The Bear” and, a special treat, a cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Unbeknown to some, “Rocket Man” was actually released as a teaser to their first record on a “Little Darla Has A Treat For You” compilation back in 1999.
After the fun falsetto-fueled “Evil Urges” it was back to the old days again with “War Begun,” “I Will Sing to You” and the ever-evolving “Phone Went West.”
Returning from a set break it was back in time with a devastating solo rendition of “Bermuda Highway,” “Old September Blues” and an extended version of “Picture of You.”
Fans of classic MMJ covers were then treated to the Velvet Underground’s “Oh Sweet Nothing” which was best played at Neil Young’s benefit with an all star cast on the day Lou died. Tonight’s, however, was nothing short of amazing as most of the crowd knew the words and sang along.
Bringing out their friends from Preservation Hall, MMJ continued with the creepy, mysterious “Holding On to Black Metal” and the robotic, disco-dance, omnichord-powered “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream.”
If you thought you’d seen the last of Bob Weir you were wrong. Still in town from his shows last week he came out one last time and began with a chilling version of the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.” A true, true highlight, the song perfectly toed the line between evil and innocence. After Jim said that he’d been snorkeling with Bob earlier that morning Bob replied — somewhat seriously, I think — “Some of my best friends are fish.”
From here on it was party time again as PHJB, Weir and My Morning Jacket continued the covers with nods to Chuck Berry’s “Never Can Tell,” Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” As the special guests left the stage, the Jacket ended Night Two with “Gideon” from the album “Z.”
Night Three was an off day for My Morning Jacket, but they handpicked a heavy-hitting bill to take their place. Mariachi El Bronx, a southbound detour and sideproject of LA punk band The Bronx got things started playing their first ever show in Mexico. Singing primarily in English, the backing instrumentation was the perfect compliment to an evening in ole Mexico. The horns blasted in a triumphant fashion while the deep-bodied guitarron hit the lows as the violin hit the highs and got the night’s mood in full swing.
The Flaming Lips were up next and, as always, were a force to be reckoned with. Changing gears from their confetti and crowd surfing in a plastic ball positivity, the band’s new stage presence has is touched by dark, ominous shades. The guitars were more piercing, the bass more bone rattling, the visuals more terrorizing — and yet the Lips still deliver that transcendent understanding. Flying the freak flag, Wayne took a jack in the pulpit climb upon a mini-mountain with LED arteries flashing lights like rainbow blood flowing through the veins of the performance.
Always gracious and constantly asking for the audience’s reassurance, Wayne dressed like an early spaceman, equipped with true Moon Boots and hair like a helmet. Merging new tracks with highlights from Soft Bulletin the band even dipped deep down rehashing “Unconsciously Screaming” from the vaults. The covers continued as Wayne dedicated David Bowie’s “Heroes” to Bob Weir. The Lips forged on, and the focus was again directed toward the Beatles as the band belted out an especially psychedelic “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” followed by an especially dark and weighty ‘She’s So Heavy.” The emotional rollercoaster ended with the Lips’ signature majestic existentialist anthem “Do You Realize?”
I’m sure Night Four must have been epic. Three days in and My Morning Jacket has yet to repeat a song — a true testament to their versatility and longevity. There is no filler. It’s all part of the whole. The whole experience shows just how far the band has come. They’ve changed creatively and stylistically, never dismissing where they came from and never questioning where they’re headed.
As for this reporter, I wouldn’t see the final day. I didn’t question where I was headed either. I was headed back to Boston and back to reality.
Follow Nolan Gawron on Twitter at NolanSellsOut.