Unlike the conventional album, the expectations and critical eye aimed at a live album are much wider in scope. While the typical studio release can be assessed as a completely independent document, the live album has the same requirements, plus the additional task of dealing with a literal comparison to the actual concert experience.
In many ways the first disc of My Morning Jacket’s Okonokos album, a two-CD live recording of performances in San Francisco last year, is an improved version of their very own 2005 epic, the succinctly-titled Z. This first disc features six of the 10 tracks from the critically acclaimed album, in addition to five of the best songs in the MMJ cannon. As an independent artifact of the history of this band, it stands as a grand entrance into the power of their music.
Yet as a representation of the soul-shaking experience that is My Morning Jacket live, the album fails to capture the band’s substantial presence. The track listing alone begins in the exact fashion that Z does, robbing the listener of the energy of hearing these songs out of their original context. Moreover, the newer songs lack the creative elaboration of the older tracks, once again mimicking the feel of the last album. Songs like “Gideon” are subtlety altered (mostly by lead vocalist Jim James), but, as a whole, they offer little in the way of new insight.
The second disc fares much better than the first, opening with an extended version of the final track from Z, “Don Dante,” before moving into a series of rousing renditions of MMJ classics. From the rapturous climax of “O is the One That’s Real” to the absolutely breathtaking guitar improvisation on “Xmas Curtain,” the second disc is much closer to replicating the feel of the group live. Albeit less of a contained piece of work than the first disc, the second disc and its spontaneity are far more alive.
Amidst the two discs there is a huge, gorgeous live album. That’s not to say there are too many songs, or even the wrong songs, but rather that the placement of the least performed (newer) tracks towards the beginning of the album immediately displaces one from the experience of actual live music.
Yet, despite these inconsistencies, the evidence of MMJ’s formidable reputation as a live act is more than visible. Take a look at the version that appears of “Lowdown,” from the album At Dawn. Opening with an electrified foreshadowing of the central melody, the song erupts with a simple “la la la” before building itself back up to the energy of the opening. As the tune soars on the weight of James’ vocals, accompanied by a deluge of riffs and that undeniable drumbeat, you can close your eyes and almost feel the heat resonate from the furious playing of the band. It’s a moment rarely found on record (anywhere), but one that is recreated by My Morning Jacket almost every night they play – and it is the shining achievement of, and ultimate justification for, Okonokos.
Be sure to check out My Morning Jacket (with The Slip) at Foellinger Auditorium on Tuesday, Dec. 5. Tickets are $25 for the public, $22 for UIUC students. The show starts at 7 p.m.