Festivals Getting A Little Old For Jim James

Jim James and his band My Morning Jacket enjoy playing music festivals, but he’s starting to wonder if they are too much of a good thing.

Festival gigs litter My Morning Jacket’s touring itinerary this summer, including in Tennessee, in Berlin, the Festival in Ireland, the in New Jersey and in Toronto. The group is headlining many of its own gigs, too.

Photo: Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP
David Lynch Foundation Music Celebration, The Theatre at Ace Hotel, Los Angeles, Calif.

James likes seeing old friends and meeting new ones at festivals, and interesting collaborations often come as a result. The band’s nearly four-hour, middle-of-the-night show at Bonnaroo in 2008 was a career high point, and they’ve even curated a festival of their own in Mexico a couple of times.

That doesn’t stop him from worrying about whether the megashows are part of a broader trend that devalues music and makes it more of a commodity.

“There’s just so much stuff now that it’s difficult for things to register for people,” James said. “Why would you go see such-and-such band that you don’t really know that much but you see is coming through town? You can see them in a club, or you can go see them in a festival where there might be 30 other bands that you like.”

Festivals are important exposure for up-and-coming acts. Artists aren’t paid as much as they are for their own gigs, said Gary Bongiovanni, CEO of the concert trade publication Pollstar.

The distinction is important for an act like My Morning Jacket, whose popularity and hard-won reputation as a live act exceeds its ability to sell recordings. That oversaturation makes it harder for a band to support itself on its own shows, James said.

Europe embraced festivals much more quickly than the United States. Following the lead of and Bonnaroo, however, the U.S. market is rapidly catching up, Bongiovanni said. If a promoter can survive a couple of money-losing years to establish a brand, it’s a great business to be in.

Given that reality, James would be better off concentrating on the serendipity of musical discovery.

“Hopefully you’ll be able to reach somebody that you’ve never reached before, a fan that may have come to see another band and hadn’t heard of you before but come to check you out,” he said.

My Morning Jacket will be playing plenty of material from its new disc, The Waterfall, this summer, led off by the anthemic “Believe (Nobody Knows).” Another strong track, “Big Decisions,” comes from James imagining he and his friends could tackle some of their problems if they made decisions for one another.

Romantic troubles seep through some of the new music James wrote, although it’s simplistic to call it a breakup album. James sounds politely dispassionate in telling one former lover that “I hope you get the point. The thrill is gone.”

With a band that formed in Louisville in 1998, it’s a fair point to wonder if the thrill remains for them, too, particularly when band members head toward other projects during downtime from My Morning Jacket. James has been busy outside the band the past couple of years, making a solo album and recording newly resurfaced Bob Dylan compositions with a one-time supergroup that included Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford.

To James, the outside projects make his old band feel young.

“We always encourage each other to do what you want,” he said. “That’s the only way you can learn and grow and not become resentful of the band you’re in, or feel like they’re holding you back from doing something you really want to do.

“I am constantly restless and looking for new ideas and adventures and thoughts,” he said. “These can be found within the band, too, but when you have these outside adventures it keeps your brain working, it makes you feel like a kid again.”