My Morning Jacket are at their core an outdoor ampitheatre band. The music they make, in all of its triumphant goodness, can be so expansive that even the largest of rooms would have trouble holding it. That’s a big part of the reason why they’re often asked to play music festivals, and do so with the sort of wild abandon reserved for the headliners they are. Looking through their copious tour archive, I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that My Morning Jacket’s last four shows in Chicago have all taken place at festivals and/or outdoor venues. The last time they played inside was in late December 2008, where they blew the doors off the Chicago Theatre for two nights in a row. It’s taken them seven years to return, which is probably how long the venue needed to repair and reinforce the “damage” from last time. Of course now they’re even bigger and more popular band with a few radio hits under their belts, so for 2015 a two-night stand becomes a three-night stand. Out of concern for my safety and the thought that the 94-year-old venue might not survive the 72 hour rock and roll punishment it was about to endure, I decided that attending the first show on Tuesday night would probably be the smartest choice. Immediately following the show I can tell you my biggest regret was not getting tickets to all three.

It began with a waterfall. Specifically, the psychedelic-looking one that graces the cover of their new album. It was projected onto a gigantic white sheet that covered the entire front of the stage. The first few plinks of keyboards rang out from behind the sheet, as did Jim James’ voice at the beginning of “Believe (Nobody Knows),” the opening track on The Waterfall record. As the song approached the first chorus, a blinding white light flashed on from the back of the stage, revealing the massive shadows of a band that many consider to be larger than life. It was a playful start to the show, and the curtain finally fell once they got around to the chorus for the second time. A massive cheer erupted from the crowd as the band was fully and exultantly revealed. I’ve seen a couple of other artists pull a similar stunt at the start of their shows, and honestly it’s effective even if it’s not original.

Speaking of original, My Morning Jacket immediately jumped from their current record straight back to their origins, with two from 1999’s The Tennessee Fire. It presented a fascinating dichotomy, a very real display of how far they’ve come in the last 16 years. Their approach was much more simple and straightforward in those early days, which isn’t so much a criticism considering the songs were pretty good. But as a much greater fan of the band they became a few years later, the one that really pushes boundaries, extends songs and lets Jim James absolutely wail with no abandon, there was a small sense of disappointment at how that sort of inventiveness seemed to be sucked out of the room in the early part of the evening. Not only were tracks like “Heartbreakin Man” and “X-Mas Curtain” played pretty much exactly to the note of how they sound on record, but the overall tempo seemed to be skewed towards ballads, kind of turning the first part of the set into a snooze, or at least something you’d want to sit down for. Nobody did fall asleep or sit down (that I noticed), but I did overhear somebody behind me tell the person next to them, “This is kind of boring.” Such are the consequences of dipping into early catalog deep cuts and quieter numbers.

The tide shifted somewhere around “Like A River,” about forty minutes and seven songs into the set. It’s yet another ballad, but one from the new album that has a delicate beauty and sparkle to it that particularly shines when played live. The same can be said for older numbers like “Knot Comes Loose” and “Sooner,” to the point where the evening became steadily more elevated and worthy of descriptors such as “nice” and “pleasant.” Still, where was the rock band that made music so huge no venue could hold it? Had I been given this expectation because prior to that moment I had never seen My Morning Jacket in anything other than a crowd-pleasing festival setting?

As if it was a totally natural thing, that muscular side of the band suddenly showed up halfway through the main set, and stayed through the encore. After a pretty standard cover of The New Basement Tapes’ (of which Jim James is a member) bouncy “Nothing to It,” the end of the song was punctuated with an extensive solo from drummer Patrick Hallahan. That immediately transitioned into the It Still Moves classic “Master Plan,” which takes on new life in concert as a blown out, solo-heavy juggernaut that generated the wildest response from the crowd up until that point in the night. Following “Slow Slow Tune,” the band used the tempo and note structure to flawlessly segue into a cover of Bob Marley and The Wailers’ “Stir It Up”. It seemed like it was really just James messing around at first and that he was only going to do the chorus once, but then the rest of the band joined in and the crowd cheered loudly so they just went with it and did pretty much the entire song. Many used the cover as an excuse to smoke up as discreetly as possible so as to not alert security.

Then the war began, thanks to “War Begun”. On The Tennessee Fire, it’s a three-minute acoustic folk number. In concert, it’s a sprawling, six-minute slice of divinity that reaffirms why My Morning Jacket are one of the best live acts today. James finger tapped his way up the fret board with the dexterity of an Olympic gymnast while sheer chaos reigned all around him. It was so humbling to watch as my jaw sat squarely on the floor and my limbs tingled with the electricity of the moment. While nothing else for the rest of the night would quite top it, sing-alongs for “Outta My System” and “Golden” were positively lovely, and the set-closing one-two singles punch of “Off the Record” and “I’m Amazed” were met with hugely enthusiastic responses from the crowd.

After two hours of dynamic music, My Morning Jacket made the traditional exit and then return for a four song, 30-minute encore that once again indulged their prog- and psych-rock tendencies. Cuts like “Circuital” and “Phone Went West” are already pretty lengthy, so they didn’t need much extra to keep them interesting. By this time too the audience had shifted a bit, with some heading for the exits because it was getting late and was a school/work night. But as quickly as they could leave, others made a mad dash to take their places, to the point where the aisles near the front of the stage were becoming filled with people dancing and generally trying to get a closer glimpse of the band. They were drawn like magnets, and as such the final couple of songs had even more of a party vibe to them. It was great, and celebratory like any My Morning Jacket show should be.

Earlier in the evening, about 3/4ths of the way through the main set, James offered up some rare stage banter that helped explain what he loved about Chicago. “It’s a city with great character,” he told the crowd. “It’s one of the only places I know of where you can see so many old, classic elements side-by-side with the brand new and modern. Bridging together the past and present is so important.” With a set list that borrowed evenly across their entire catalog and range of styles, it certainly seemed like the band took that inspiration to heart. They left the crowd just a little bit stronger and the walls of the Chicago Theatre just a little bit weaker because of it.

Buy The Waterfall on iTunes or directly from the band.

Set List

1. Believe (Nobody Knows)
2. The Dark
3. Heartbreakin Man
4. First Light
5. Xmas Curtain
6. Rollin Back
7. Like a River
8. Knot Comes Loose
9. Sooner
10. Nothing To It (The New Basement Tapes cover)
11. Masterplan
12. Slow Slow Tune
13. Stir It Up (Bob Marley & The Wailers cover)
14. War Begun
15. Outta My System
16. Golden
17. Only Memories Remain
18. Off The Record
19. I’m Amazed
20. Circuital
21. The Way That He Sings
22. Phone Went West
23. Run Thru