Touring heavy records is hard. In today’s day and age, heavy-handed works of staggering genius are hardly appreciated in the album form, let alone trying to communicate that weight in a crowded room facing a loaded bar. But in these heavy times, there are those who brave the difficulties and make it happen, and few men are few better examples of this than Jim James. The My Morning Jacket frontman followed up his illuminating debut solo LP, Regions of Light & Sound of God, with a dark and groggy inversion. Eternally Even is an intentional fall from grace, no longer counting on the motherly love of a benevolent creator, and instead, dwelling on a stark understanding of cosmic karma. But where Eternally Even gets darkest, Jim James’s live incarnation was most apt for brilliant reimagination. Cast alongside the best of Regions and a handful of progressive, foundation-shaking covers, James’s sophomore somber was given an equal opposing force of eagerness for change. Together with Louisville trio Twin Limb (who also played as part of James’s band), Jim James brought the light and sound we need upon tumultuous tides.
This year, Twin Limb built their few years of escalation to a head with their first full length LP, Haplo. The record is a delightfully fitting showcase of their talent and their taste, taking their favorite 80s staples and bending them through a hazy southern light. Lacey Guthrie’s angelic vocals can draw obvious comparison to the likes of Elizabeth Frasier, but who knew that an accordion could give such a lush drone layer for a shoegaze track? It’s these particulars that make Twin Limb so enjoyable, and altogether refreshing compared to the next in line. While Guthrie and drummer Maryliz Bender maintain unshakable eye contact through soaring hooks, Kevin Ratterman quietly rips out intense guitar work, quite a bit of which gets lost to the ear amidst the plentiful layers of reverberation. But evident from both his focus and inter-song resolve, Ratterman knows he is laying down some pretty fantastic licks. The combination of these distinctive elements makes up Twin Limb, a band that opened the evening with nothing but desire. Thankfully for the crowd here tonight, they’d get another chance to hear them in half an hour when they returned to the stage with a few extra hands and much more scraggly face up front.
When Seattle last saw Jim James in the solo form, it was in this very building, May of 2013, at the Little Big Show #6. Lit brilliantly by a halo of warmth, sliding around the stage in a dapper suit and making heavy interaction with the crowd, James brought the Light & Sound of God straight to earth. If you don’t believe us, just ask anyone who got to hear him play saxophone on “Dear One”. Those here tonight expecting the same vibrancy and optimism may have been a bit disappointed. That was James three years ago, apart from several years of disturbing growth (or at the very least, prominence) in hatred across the globe. The James that brings us Eternally Even is a changed man, more cynical but also quietly more determined. There is a gospel to preach, but it can’t be done in sweeping ballads. Instead, it must be done in the tone of the congregation.
What may have been surprising to James’s fans was how intentionally he pursued this tone in the live setting. James was distant and brooding behind dark sunglasses. His dark brown suit was countered by a zip up athletic shirt underneath. The live sax was gone – in its place was Lacey Guthrie’s accordion, adapted to the droning grooves of Eternally Even’s bleak landscape. And finally, while James did rip into a couple numbers on the guitar (once again like the Regions tour, oddly fixed to a tripod to allow him to play without a strap, successfully bombing every photo of the evening), most of the intricate guitar work was supplied by Kevin Ratterman. Based simply on the brilliance of James’s band and their instrumentation, it was evident that none of these measures were made out of laziness or a jaded approach. Rather, it was an intentional decision to step away and to adapt to a more uncomfortable setting, much like the one that James so aptly describes on his record.
Rest assured, the full experience of the show wasn’t lost to overbearing dramatic irony. James and his band played a full two hours, burning through nearly all of both Regions and Eternally Even. The most interactive point of the main set was the band’s cover of Velvet Underground classic “I’m Set Free”, in which James coaxed on a three minute outro of just the crowd singing before jumping into a fast two paragraphs of thoughts about the state of the world and the importance of perception. During the Dylan-focused encore, James brought out surprise guest Brandi Carlile for a very candid a cappella of “The Times They Are A-Changin'” before playing through a ravenous rendition of his New Basement Tapes contribution, “Down on the Bottom”. After dwelling heavily on the darkness during his set, it was evident in the encore that James wanted to bring the focus back to the presence of light in the form of compassion and peace. For a performer so involved with his craft and his crowd, Eternally Even presents a challenge, merely in its existence – it’s an album of woes about our apathy and lack of empathy for others. But in bringing it to the stage, James showed us the power of juxtaposition. Together with the immense presence of Twin Limb, Jim James went 2 for 2 with his solo shows at the Neptune.
Eternally Even is out now on ATO Records.