Months after receiving credit for having released its best album in a decade on [1], My Morning Jacket (“MMJ”) began its current Waterfall Tour in Athens, GA on May 15 of this year. I am not a music-scholar nor do I claim more than a smidge of hard-earned musical ability after years of effort. However, I am one of countless MMJ fans. Importantly, seasoned musicians, masters and experts are as drawn to MMJ as those having similar musical expertise to mine, which speaks volumes about the band’s popularity and ability to get it done on-stage night after night.

My writing this article is similar to popular North American college football show, ESPN Gameday’s, addition of Nick Lachey to the crew years ago to offer his perspective based on his novice experience. No knock on him, but he probably had a similar amount of experience playing college football as I do playing rock and roll. I write from a perspective of appreciation and near stupification from having watched MMJ play live 4 times since May of this year and a handful of times previous to that.

To start, MMJ is simply an all-star cast. If all bands I have seen live were graded on a 1-to-100 scale for the combined musical aptitude of each member, MMJ would outscore the second place group by 100+. I have not seen Phish, but have seen other once-in-a-generation rock and roll favorites in concert. Each individual MMJ member appears to understand and to have mastered their individual on-stage role.

The lovable Jim James more than meets the demands bestowed upon any front-man. He is omnipresent, yet unassuming in his on-stage movement. The spotlight follows him without his having to grab it. Jim has a reverberating and unusual voice, which he uses to hold tunes longer than necessary to fill the hearts of audiences. Having been close enough to see how much he uses his tongue to enhance his vocals, he is a one of a kind singer in addition to alternating between seamlessly strumming complex lead riffs and carrying on as a rhythm guitarist.

Downstage-right, opposite James, is musical renaissance man and conservatory-trained, Carl Broemel. Carl’s skill on electric guitar is sufficient to wow fans and contribute wholly to every song of every live set. He, however, brings other dimensions to live shows playing the steel guitar, a tenor saxophone and using a bow in place of his right hand on guitar during a 2015 St. Augustine, Florida show. Carl lets his music do the talking as he moves fluidly in place while commanding his guitar or other instrument of his choosing. MMJ belongs to Carl almost as much as it does James and almost as much as The Rolling Stones belong to Keith Richards.

The remaining band-members—Tommy “Two Tone” Blankenship; Bo Koster; and Patrick Hallahan—are as effective in their roles as Jim and Carl are at theirs. Noticeable about Tommy is what often goes unnoticed. He flawlessly carries the bass notes so that they can be taken as pre-recorded. Tommy stands mid-center stage during this tour and moves with an unassuming grace, which is as noticeable as it is purposefully unnoticeable. Drummer Patrick Hallahan needs no introduction, but is as grandiose and flawless and the rest of the band members combined. He, more than most drummers I have seen play, interacts non-verbally with audiences with an optimistic flair.

Last, but not least, Bo Koster adds an element to each song, which takes MMJ out of the more common folk, southern-rock, or rock and roll genres and into a category of their own making them hard to pigeon-hole, but all the more invaluable. Bo’s contributions are relentless, but can be heard with particularity in live and studio versions of Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 2 and Believe. From downstage left, in the corner, he too makes his presence felt at every live show. He is awesome.

Having seen them previous to 2015 multiple times, I noticed a few specific differences between this year’s shows and those before 2015. The best bands, athletes, or players at the top of any field usually get there not because they do the major things better than everyone else, but because they incorporate hundreds of intricacies into performances, which are often left out by those not at the top. MMJ is as technically sound as any other music group I have seen, but a few of the nuances I noticed during the Waterfall Tour make them breathtaking on-stage. Such nuances include:

They don’t crowd each other

Their lack of sudden, major on-stage movements may be more safety-related than anything else, as Jim took a near fatal spill off the stage in 2008. Regardless of why, their spacing improves their watchability and does not detract from the quality of their shows. They are physically organized. Simply stated, neither Jim nor any of his bandmates blocks or detracts from the audience’s views the other band members. Jim may take front and center stage periodically when singing without a guitar or soloing, but there is no grandstanding. This is easier to watch. Carl, at times, jumps in place or turns to face Jim, or Tommy, which raises the energy level of whatever song they are playing, but he rarely steps in front of anyone. Additionally, Tommy stands center-stage in front of Patrick’s raised drum set, but sways and steps with grace within a five-foot circle making him appear even more in control than his carrying of the lower sounding notes suggests. In sum, MMJ makes it easy to watch any individual member do their thing during a live-show. They are an organized and consummate team while playing live.

Gracefully Sustained High-Intensity

The tones of set lists for almost every Waterfall Tour show follow crescendo patterns, which resemble the tones of a number of MMJ’s songs themselves. This is not new to MMJ set lists, but has been perfected even more on this tour. During the Saturday night show in Atlanta, they started out with more mellow tunes to warm-up the audience up for the hour and a half all-out, explosion of music that lasted through the end of the show. I do not know how they did it. Naysayers or skeptics may suggest MMJ’s sustained high-energy level in concert is only made possible by stimulants. While I would not judge MMJ or be less impressed if this were true, I do not think it is. They sing and move with the same grace and ease at the end of shows as they do at the beginning, which gives the appearance that they do it with their own adrenaline. While marathon runners may possess such stamina, I know of no other musical group that can play as hard for as long as MMJ does. It is far more exhilarating to watch in person than to read about. It can only really be felt. If you watch them live, I challenge you to hold still. I am in better than average physical condition, but cannot dance continuously for an entire MMJ set. I have had to take dancing breaks while watching their concerts.

More music, less talk

Having endured live music shows of a more rudimentary sort, I noticed a tendency of the performers to yuck it up with the audience during many of them. This adds little to the live-music experience. Engaging the crowd builds a rapport which is necessary for a complete concert. However, said rapport is better attained using music, which is supplemented by spoken word. MMJ follows this philosophy to a “T.” In fact, Jim’s only spoken words at the initial show in Athens were, “Athens, Georgia…what a beautiful place. That’s all I can say, what a beautiful, beautiful place.” The rest was music. Jim talked to the crowd a bit more during other Waterfall concerts, but it is never a substitute for the music itself. Everyone in MMJ appears to be personable and well-spoken during television appearances. MMJ, however, is a music group and their music serves as their primary interaction with live audiences.

Not a wasted sound

Having been mistakenly grouped into the jam-band genre in my presence, MMJ proves the inaccuracy of this statement in concert. Although some songs include improvisation and last longer in live-performances than in studio versions, they do not exhaust audiences with relentless soloing and single-note, measure filled interludes. Their most recent concert at Red Rocks included songs of the following lengths (including between song distortion and noise): 4:12; 4:19; 7:04; 7:18; 6:01; 3:14; 5:07; 5:09; 12:18; 3:48; 3:16; 5:09; 5:12; 7:58; 4:30; 15:43 (two songs in one); 11:04; 9:36; 8:49 (with talk to crowd and special guest intro); 6:18; 3:55; 8:30; 3:17; 7:23; 8:13 (encore). MMJ does not waste sound, which is clearly by design. It may sound oxymoronic, but I would call any live, extended versions of their songs, “choreographed improvisation.” Watching them execute reminds me of Tom Brady led touchdown drives in which everything from his cadence to his timed stare-downs of decoy receivers are pre-planned and understood by his 10 teammates on the field. MMJ is always on the same page. I have never felt I did not get more than what I paid for any MMJ concert ticket, nor have I felt it was not worth the trip to see them play a long way from my home, especially on this Tour.

If after reading this, you feel compelled to see them for yourself, you are in luck. MMJ concludes its Waterfall Tour in late November in New York. Previously thought to have been on the decline, everything I have seen and reported here suggests they are entering a new prime of a wholly different level. The Athens show is only bested as the best concert I have ever seen by the 3 that followed.