It's not often a rock band gets to fill Preservation Hall's browning, sweat-lined interior. The place is a jazz institution, home base for its namesake band, the 50-year-old torchbearer for the traditional New Orleans sound. Just the idea of My Morning Jacket performing its Prince-ly future-funk track "Highly Suspicious" there gives purists worried goosebumps. But the band did it.
"That was one of the most magical, moving moments I've had playing music," says My Morning Jacket keyboardist Bo Koster, who practically shared his seat with the audience while sitting at the hall's piano in 2010. "There's something about those walls and the energy in that room, and everyone so close together — you can feel everyone in the room."
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band's 2010 album Preservation features a star-studded lineup of guest players like Tom Waits and Andrew Bird, all of whom recorded their tracks at the hall. My Morning Jacket's Jim James sang on jazz standard "Louisiana Fairytale," and the partnership blossomed. Filmmaker Danny Clinch shot that acoustic, one-night-only Pres Hall gig (and ensuing second-line) for the documentary Live From Preservation Hall: Louisiana Fairytale. My Morning Jacket took the New Orleans band on a whirlwind arena tour, joining together onstage for album cuts and classics. My Morning Jacket still is having a bit of a love affair with the city.
"Anytime you discover a place as magical and weird as New Orleans, it doesn't hit you right away," Koster says. "Until you experience it — meet the people, eat the food, breathe that air, drink the water — it's not something you can really understand."
It took a few years. The band played House of Blues in November 2006, but "We didn't really get into the heart of it, and what makes the city special," Koster remembers. "You can feel it, you can feel the energy, but you can't feel what kind of energy it is."
In 2008, drummer Patrick Hallahan was invited to perform a benefit for Sweet Home New Orleans — an event that initiated a relationship between New Orleans brass blasters Bonerama and power-pop quartet OK Go. James and My Morning Jacket later were introduced to Ben Jaffe, who became the band's New Orleans medium. "It was weird how connected all of us felt to the city, the people, the music," Koster says, "a kinship, a family kind of thing, the way we all feel about and approach music."
That hometown-heartland appreciation for music-making — and the band's realization it had never recorded at home — brought it all back home, to Louisville, Ky., where My Morning Jacket recorded its latest album, 2011's Grammy-nominated Circuital. The bulk of the tracks were laid down inside a Pentecostal church gymnasium and its adjacent chapel.
"We kind of utilized the whole place," Koster says. "The tracking with all five of us in the room together was in the gymnasium. We had the control room set up on the stage — it was like an old school where they probably had plays and basketball. ... You can hear the sound of the room in that record."
He's right — while the album doesn't have the haunting, reverb-soaked alt-country of the band's early releases, it also doesn't have the weird clean space of 2008's Evil Urges. James tones down his impulse for restless freak-outs with R&B and electronics and fills it with deep Southern soul, folk and big, warm guitars.
Circuital wasn't a planned album — the band was only able to get together after a few years of tours, collaborations, live album releases, festival and film appearances (it is James with Calexico performing Bob Dylan and The Band's "Goin' to Acapulco" in I'm Not There) and scrapped ambitions (Disney pulled the plug on a My Morning Jacket-headlining live Muppet Show tour).
"We honestly went into it without any really specific plans," Koster says. "We were available in July that year and thought, 'Let's get together, kick around some songs, bring in some recording gear, just in case.' ... We were going to start working on new material, if things came together and we got some arrangements and songs we liked, we could record right there. By the end of the week we had four or five songs."
James reflects on living recklessly on Circuital centerpieces "Outta My System" and "Holdin' On to Black Metal," the latter propelled by Koster's Dr. John jungle-funk electric piano riff. On big beat, fuzzed out country-folk track "You Wanna Freak Out," James warns himself, "Play it smart, soul intact, how you react is what you get back." As ambitious and far-reaching as My Morning Jacket has played since it was founded in the late 1990s as a tepid alt-country band, the group's members haven't finished exploring. The band's diversity and sheer volume over its relatively short career (just six albums) make it an attractive festival band — the songs beg to be played loud and in front of thousands, preferably at dusk, in the summertime. Or in total darkness while the band wears god-like white robes and golden masks, as it did for the 2010 Voodoo Experience. During a backyard barbecue, Jaffe suggested the band My Morning Jacket return for that festival. The band asked around to make sure it got the gig.
"That's pretty rare for us," Koster says. "Just the personalities of the guys in our band, trying to explore new things, keeps things fresh. We're definitely not the band that's just clocking in."