Summertime has become the make-or-break time slot for bands who toil in the indie rock arena and look to make a step up in venues they can fill. In some instances, Arcade Fire being on top of the list right now, important tours follow the release of a new album, but in most cases, the summer becomes a gauge to determine the strength of a band’s fan base, especially one like My Morning Jacket, which has a fervid following at the large club/small theater level. Without a record to support, My Morning Jacket, which began its summer-fall tour Wednesday in San Diego, gets to open up the songbook and deliver a far-ranging two-hour show that demonstrates the evolution of their country-rock sound, the ability to smartly pace a show and the guitar skills of leader Jim James and Carl Broemel.
Wheeling through the U.S. with no constraints on their set list will not only delight My Morning Jacket fans, it should bolster the band’s ability to further cement its image as a premier live act. Its set Thursday drew heavily on material from the albums “Evil Urges,” 2005’s “Z” and 2003’s “It Still Moves,” and James made the music move on a series of rising angles, building from the hushed and slow acoustic numbers to a frenetic tune, and then repeating the process until the band was at fever pitch on the techno-funk of “Highly Suspicious.” What’s uncanny is how the display of their past makes a song such as “Smokin’ From the Shootin’,” with its combination of a haunting pedal steel guitar sound and a throbbing single-note bass line, seem so logical.
The set list was indicative of the evolution of the band over the last 11 years from a Kentucky-fried version of Neil Young and Crazy Horse into a Southern Wilco; their version of “Dancefloors,” dead square in the middle of the set, proved an act can start a song sounding like the Band and close out in the realm of the Faces.
By opening with “At Dawn” from the second of their five studio albums, My Morning Jacket established a languid pace that would not pick up much steam for a good 20 minutes. If anything, James and crew used the early part of the two-hour show — much of which was performed on a dark stage with minimal lighting — to unearth their folky roots before stepping into more recent songs driven by monochromatic industrial beats. The juxtaposition of old and new worked well within the set structure, the encores of the reggae-tinged “Wordless Chorus” and “One Big Holiday” convincingly connecting the dots between their more recent successful experiments and those of their past.
The Greek itself has been ground zero for acts attempting to leap to the theater level — Neko Case, Andrew Bird, Rilo Kiley — however short their time there may be. This year, well aware that the recession has affected ticket sales, the Greek has scaled down its hall for many of its shows; the set-up for My Morning Jacket was nearly a 1,000 seats less than full capacity, but nearly every available seat was filled.
The band will close the summer-fall tour with a string of five unique nights at New York City’s Terminal 5 at which they will perform one of their albums in its entirety on each night. The run kicks off Oct. 18 with a performance of their 1999 debut “The Tennessee Fire” and concludes on the 23rd with “Evil Urges.”