My Morning Jacket with Will Johnson: The Dangers of Selecting a Great Opener
J. Gordon
11/24/2005 11:58:54 AM

Sometimes a band with notable success: interviews on NPR, New Years Eve at Madison Square Garden, likes to give talented unknowns a boost. That's what My Morning Jacket did for singer/songwriter Will Johnson. And sometimes that opener will blow away the main act.

A former neighbor from Kennett, Mo., Will Johnson opened the show, quickly pulling the audience into a mesmerizing show with what could only be called, “experimental folk.” Layered over a recorded loop of strumming chords, Johnson played his guitar strings up at the top, by the tuning pegs, lending a weird, discordant effect that was nonetheless pleasing. With his mountain-man bearded looks and a voice that was at times like Neil Young, Johnson’s got the vocal chops to cover the gamut of emotions, with a little extra left for good measure. Having no shame playing along with his own recordings, at one point he put down his guitar and picked up another as the music played on. And it seems to work for him—Johnson isn’t about trying to hide his multi-tracked ideas that, if you let go of the pre-recorded prejudice, sound damned good.

Will Johnson’s strong, clear vocals are a thing of beauty, elevating his music from the requisite alt-country to something much more spiritual. As he sang into a microphone wrapped in Christmas lights, the feeling was transcendent; we were with him at the top of mountains, or in the midst of a deep forest.

Halfway through his set, Will spoke of how he just obtained “a big ol’ chunk of Busch stadium, very dividable and it will make great Christmas gifts.” A drummer occasionally sat in on his set for some of the bigger-sounding tunes, but for the most part, it was just Johnson, his guitar, his backing tracks and his great set of windpipes. One amazing tune incorporated a grating sound against the guitar strings that was both disturbing and gorgeous at the same time. When Will Johnson sang along with tracks of his own voice, the modest-sized Mississippi Nights evolved into a desolate canyon, echoing it all back in eerie beauty.

This November 22nd show in St. Louis was Will Johnson’s last night on tour with My Morning Jacket. “It’s rare when you get to meet your favorite band,” Johnson said, “and it’s rare to become friends with your favorite band. But to get to play music with your favorite band is a dream come true.” And then he introduced the headliners, MMJ, who joined Will Johnson for what was clearly the best song of the night before his low-key exit, “My name’s Will. See you later.”

My Morning Jacket then took over with their acid jazz psychedelia, kicking up the switch on the energy a few hundred notches. With their almost-ambient groove, feet were moving and faces were smiling as lead singer Jim James crooned and howled and sang in the tongues of hippies long gone. With each band member sporting a full beard and most with long hair, MMJ is like a Woodstock throwback (think: The Band, The Grateful Dead) who’ve picked up some electronic tricks. All songs were rambling, loose and unformed. If you’re not familiar with their CDs, to hear the songs live, the lyrics are largely unintelligible; these are songs of spirit and feeling more than any kind of sense. And that’s cool for those who were there just to party and have a good time.

Opener Will Johnson joined the band back onstage for “The St. Louis Arch Song,” which was a highlight of the night. As Will left the stage, Jim James said, “God bless him. God bless Will Johnson. If he was figgy pudding I’d eat his ass up.” [ed.--Um, whatever! We loved Will a lot, too.] A few tidy guitar jams occasionally awakened MMJ’s sweet, peaceful groove, one sounding like a slight diversion from Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Free Bird.”

“Tonight you’ve just witnessed a first,” said James. “I invented a new guitar strumming technique! It’s called, ‘stirring the pot.’ You see, in this guitar are all the ingredients…” And he was right there, because My Morning Jacket does seem to have the recipe for a good time. But despite MMJ being the main entrée, in this writer’s opinion, Will Johnson was far more satisfying.

Photo from and taken by Andrew Von Kerens at the Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas


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