This just in from the Department of Opinions and Assholes: Last night at Marymoor Park Shabazz Palaces played a better set than My Morning Jacket.
The hometown duo demonstrated one of the pitfalls of the unorthodox opener/headliner pairing: In a situation charged with so much potential energy, an upset is more likely. The two bands refracted each other, and the light cast on Shabazz showed a group pushing their sound, off-kilter and almost subliminal, in new directions, while My Morning Jacket, the well-oiled, tour-sharpened five-piece rock band from Louisville, KY, seemed settled into its role of crowd-pleasing showmen.
Shabazz are alchemists to begin with, playing a type of shadowy, effects-laden music that naturally conforms to the contours of its setting. See them at Neumos and the music sounds pressurized, hot; at the Moore grand and shambling; at Marymoor, with its expansive outdoor stage flanked by forest and ceilinged by cloudless blue sky, it sounded immense, weightless, all encompassing. They boomed from a sound system bigger than any other I've heard them on; the unprecedented sound was immaculate for their 45-minute set. The venue was mostly empty at this point.
Perhaps taking a cue from MMJ—a semi-improvisational outfit that never plays a song the same way twice—they altered their songs into near-unrecognizability. Or perhaps not—every Shabazz show I've seen has been wildly different. Last night they indulged in digitized vocal distortion almost comically, revealing the AutoTune exploits of "futuristic" acts like the Black Eyed Peas as entry-level novelty. Percussionist Tendai Maraire traded an octave-spanning choral effect on his voice with an R. Kelly-ish falsetto while MC Ishmael Butler sounded mechanical at times, as if he were rapping through a megaphone, and at others Darth Vader deep. Maraire kept sizzling counterpoint on a high-hat cymbal or plunked gentle melodies on kalimba, the music swirling and panning from one side of the stage to the other, engaging the physical space of the venue. The pair followed each other into long ambient breaks—minimalist, distorted percussion jams magnetic in their emptiness. Snippets of Butler's lyrics floated through oceanic beats: The beat will always save us… We rock hard… Through the space we're in… Times are rough a little love… Certain things need not be asked… This for all the chicks and fellas… Who do you think you are?
Afterwards a friend familiar with the band asked if these were new songs. I couldn't answer—certainly many were old songs played in new ways, while others I didn't recognize at all, so yes? "Challenging" was the word he used to describe the set. I'd say inscrutable, unpredictable, funny, poignant, atmospheric, elegant, alluring.
"Thanks to Shabazz Palaces," MMJ singer Jim James said towards the end of his band's performance; after all, he hand-picked them to open. "They came all the way from the future!" Shabazz packed more ideas into their 45-minute opening set than the Jacket mined from two hours.
I've seen My Morning Jacket probably a dozen times; each time they reveal something new, positive or otherwise (which is one reason I keep coming back). Last night I heard a band on cruise control—speeding at 80 miles an hour with the lights off, yes, but on empty highway. Too soon for them to embrace their inner Eagles.
The first half of the set felt especially tired, a result of the set list as much as actual energy level. Five or six songs in, at the end of "Steam Engine," Carl Broemel's greasy, uneasy sax solo shifted gears enough to catch the crowd off guard. From there, live favorites like "Mahgeeta" and "Gideon" hit all cylinders, stringing together one crescendo into another, James lurching around the stage fingertapping his Flying V, guitarist Broemel reservedly shredding. "Victory Dance" followed the same slow-smolder template as Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" (google it) and the Jim James knee slide that normally climaxes "Wordless Chorus" was downgraded to a less-thrilling leap off Patrick Hallahan's kick drum. No James skulking weirdly behind a cape, no strutting around in moon boots. No "Dondante," their best concert song. Still, the performance had enough high points to mostly sustain interest through its two hours.
Maybe MMJ is saving something for tonight's identical double bill in Portland. As per the lyrics of "Master Plan," which they delivered midway through last night's show: "Just 'cause it starts off slow, babe/Doesn't mean it don't have a heart."
Photo of Jim James by me.