There stood James, I recall, clad in black and surrounded by a curtain of fog that formed an atmosphere more suitable for a Megadeath tribute show. Instead, what the crowd got that night was somewhere in between Summerteeth and Kick Out The Jams— familiar motifs in American rock music coalescing into a sound that stood on its own.
Sixteen years later, it’s a strange happenstance to find myself back in California (after a brief stint in the Northeast) attending a “summer backyard party” thrown by Los Angeles’ most beloved public institution, KCRW. Such a party typically evokes visions of scantily dressed beach bums drunkenly stumbling through the chorus of whichever Drake song happens to be ubiquitous at the moment, but that’s a romantic vision of California invented by people who’ve never been to California.
Instead, this backyard party was filled with a diverse group of participants: A middle-aged man in a black leather jacket in 80 degree weather; a young Latinx woman with her partner discussing the new Janelle Monae record (“it really grows on you”); a group of bleach-blonde teenagers in tank tops patiently staking their claim in front of the stage. They were all here, vastly different from each other, but yet, shared the bond that comes with waiting in line for hours to catch a *squints* folk-rock musician? The sound of Jim James was born in the rugged south but evidently revered under the California sun.
After an hour and a half of DJ Liza Richardson spinning everything from The Weeknd to Wham, James finally took to stage to pick up a sequin-colored guitar to lay across his chest and stood alone. After a few songs, it was clear that even when James is not backed by the raw power of distortion and his backing band, he seems at ease commanding the audience’s attention with his one guitar and the high-octave tremble of his voice.
In between his tributes to the standards he clearly admires (a cover of Timmy Thomas’ “Rainbow Power”) and the hits that earned him his accolades (My Morning Jacket’s “I’m Amazed”), James thumbed through his solo catalog to lasting effect. “No Secrets,” a track that carried much of its weight with a Neil Young-inspired distorted filth, is transformed into a solemn lament for love lost. “Over and Over,” a breezy jaunt of a tune reminiscent of Blue Album-era Weezer, plays more like a call to arms against the shallow hostility of an American President.
James ended the night with a song that served both as an homage to his musical roots and a thesis statement. With a cover of Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy,” he sings “Love and mercy, that’s what you need tonight/Love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.” If there’s a candidate for a statement that would better represent the ethos of this occasion, I’d love to hear it.
Words and photos by Eric Han