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An Early Live Gem from a Band on the Verge

My Morning Jacket's peak-energy live shows usually include generous helpings of early material.
My Morning Jacket's peak-energy live shows usually include generous helpings of early material.

Live albums provide a dependable way for a rock band to introduce new fans to the music it made before many were paying attention. If any act could use such a move right now, it's My Morning Jacket, the Kentucky quintet whose first two albums were made on the cheap for independent labels. Since then, two solid high-profile releases — and peak-energy live shows, which often include generous helpings of the band's openhearted early songs — have propelled the group to "on the verge" status. Any minute now, these guys will be rock stars.

Curiously, the hot double-disc live set Okonokos contains only a handful of songs from the band's early history. One is "Lowdown," a gem from 2001's At Dawn that serves as a great way to bring the uninitiated into the chiming majesty of My Morning Jacket. Recorded as part of a concert film, this new version is considerably scruffier than the original. Its verses are punctuated with snarling 8-bar rhythm-guitar breaks, as well as moments when the screaming-arrow lead guitars thoroughly overshadow Jim James' voice. Somehow, though, the unassuming and beautiful melody prevails. Where most rock songs find an emotional tone and stay put, this one is restless: Every jag sends the theme down a different road. At times, the melody seems almost heroic, like a victory parade down a wide boulevard. Then, a few bars later, James lets himself get dejected enough to sing "Sho' don't need no repeatin'," and the road changes into a rutted dirt trail.

This performance has other things going for it, most notably the clarity of the vocals. A confessed reverb addict, James let his obsession obscure his voice on parts of At Dawn. Nowadays, he's more restrained, and as a result, divining the words isn't as challenging as it was on those willfully murky first albums. Then again, lyrics are never the whole story with James: On "The Way That He Sings," another old song that's revitalized on Okonokos, he marvels about how, when he hears a great singer, he's uplifted before he ever stops to process the words. This version of "Lowdown," like much of the passionately sung Okonokos, proves that point. It's not necessary to follow the narrative to be swept into this rousing music. The key information is all pre-language. It's there in the contour of the voice, the inflections, the elusive intangibles between the notes, the way that he sings.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.