On top of the Pops

My Morning Jacket drown out the house band at Symphony Hall
By WILL SPITZ  |  June 22, 2006

JIM JAMES: Born to sing at Symphony Hall.
It was like My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James was born to sing at Symphony Hall. On Wednesday at the first of two "Pops on the Edge" concerts featuring the Louisville band and the Boston Pops, his buoyant high tenor floated to the Hall's ceiling, meshing with the sounds of the orchestra's strings on the way up, and it was difficult to tell how much, if any, of the band's trademark reverb was in effect. After a rousing rendition of "Wordless Chorus," which found James on his knees for the falsetto-soul climax and members of the Pops helping out with back-up vocals, he commented on the show: "It's very surreal, very wonderful." The "surreal" part was spot-on — if you look the word up in the dictionary, you might find a picture of a full orchestra fronted by five longhairs in tuxes playing in front of an equal number of scruffy, shouting twentysomethings mixed in with the Pops' trad audience of prim, proper geezers. But the concert was only partly wonderful. Sure, the concept was great in theory — and it made great TV on Letterman two weeks earlier (check it on YouTube) — but the execution was trickier. Without the help of microphones, an orchestra of acoustic instruments can't compete, volume-wise, with a rock band (see Metallica vs. the San Francisco Symphony, S&M, 2000) — even when the band's sound has been restrained. That meant MMJ drummer Patrick Hallahan was forced to play an electronic kit and Two Tone Tommy's bass was all but inaudible. Pops percussionist Patrick Hollenbeck's arrangements were excellent — when you could hear them. Hollenbeck gets bonus points for not going overboard (see Metallica vs. the San Francisco Symphony, ibid.); he added simple harmonic bits for extra beef, and spare, subtle melodic embellishments. But when you couldn't hear the Pops, as was the case for most of the concert, it was frustrating to watch — a great band playing for keeps but sounding suffocated, and a world-class orchestra almost completely drowned out.
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