My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James arrived at the New Orleans Jazz Fest’s Gentilly Stage on Friday with a sampler around his neck, so he could manipulate his vocals; a black vest with neon pinks, greens and yellows; and bug-eyed sunglasses.
It was a look only he could pull off.
The band’s sound is one only they could only pull off, too, and they did, to workmanlike effect.
The band kicked off the set with “Victory Dance,” an ominous dirge from 2012’s “Circuital” that crescendos into one of the heaviest things heard to date at this year’s Jazz Fest. As the band went into hyperspeed distortion, James’ echoed vocals peaked over the mix.
That song represents only one of many sides of the Kentucky band.
For an hour and a half, My Morning Jacket rolled through a set that prominently featured songs from the critically-acclaimed 2015 album, “The Waterfall,” including “Spring (Among the Living),” “Believe” and “Tropics (Erase Changes).”
That third song was a highlight as the band mixed guitar arpeggios with tightly-woven, almost jarringly-loud breakdowns that sounded just like they do on the album.
For the uninitiated, My Morning Jacket is an alt-rock chameleon.
Imagine a group of hairy, burly dudes who grew up in the South but dug Pink Floyd’s earlier albums and Radiohead’s “The Bends.” Mix in a bit more reverb and James’ ability to sound like a 1960s soul singer, and you have My Morning Jacket.
Songs like “Compound Fracture,” the second track from “The Waterfall,” went from bouncy pop-rock to psych/jam-rock territory with James and guitarist Carl Broemel taking turns soloing.
Moments later, the band went into falsetto-tinged vocal harmonies on “Wordless Chorus,” from the 2005 masterpiece “Z.” The crowd tried to keep up with James’ vocal acrobatics, but his range is off the charts.
The musicians weren’t concerned with between-song banter. There were no cries for peace, no political chants for change — just a bunch of guitar techs weaving on and off the stage.
However, James did show his off-kilter sense of humor. Before the band roared into 2003’s “Mahgeetah,” James held his guitar pick out to the crowd, similar to Jack Black in “School of Rock.”
Towards the end of the song, he swirled on the stage, his guitar feeding back in the monitors for a few measures. Volume is his idea of fun, but he knew with this crowd, he couldn’t do it as long as he wanted.
In “Wordless Chorus,” he blew a kiss to the fans. During “Touch Me, I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2,” the only song from the 2008 album “Evil Urges,” James took a moment to pose for the crowd, his arms folded, as if he heard the guy behind me yell, “Jim James is such a pimp.”
The song propelled into the distortion; James strummed a few chords on his Gibson Flying V.
Towards the end of the set, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s horns joined in for two Prince songs, “Sign ‘o’ the Times” and “Purple Rain,” continuing what has become a 2016 Jazz Fest tradition of honoring him.
My Morning Jacket ended with “One Big Holiday,” a roaring rock song with howling guitar licks from “It Still Moves.”
This time around, it was the guitars, not James’ voice, doing all the work. Not surprisingly, the band pulled it off.
Follow Matthew Sigur on Twitter, @MatthewSigur.