Epic rock is a dying art. If you're a fan of skatepunk, post-emo or gross-out metal, you have plenty of young noisemakers to adore the shit out of (that'd be Kut U Up, Switchfoot and Cattle Decapitation, respectively and locally). But this decade can leave you wondering, like Citizen Dick frontman Cliff Poncier, "Where is the "Misty Mountain Hop'? Where is the "Smoke on the Water'? Where is the "Iron Man'?"
For the answer to these questions, we turn to Kentucky's My Morning Jacket.
No one in My Morning Jacket-not even wildman/frontman Jim James-is epic enough to pull a Jimmy Page and buy Aleister Crowley's house on the banks of Loch Ness. But if you want Pete Townshend-style leaping guitar odysseys of Homeric (and "Free Bird") proportions and Neil Youngian feedback floods as wide as the Mississippi River, well, MMJ supplies them all in copious amounts.
"Like all musicians, I wanna give you the standard "I don't think we can be categorized' line," says MMJ keyboardist Bo Koster. "But if you wanna call us "epic rock'? Yeah, objectively, I think that's fair."
Bo knows. Koster joined MMJ as the band released its breakthrough album, It Still Moves, and on subsequent tours has evened out James' guitar overdrive with Stax keyboards and sampled blips and beeps.
"I'm like a lot of keyboard players," he says. "I'm a jack of all trades who can play a little of this and a little of that. I learned a lot of the stuff I needed for this band playing at the Temple Bar in L.A. There's a lot of Latin guys and R&B stuff and white kids who want to play jazz there. I actually played in a hip-hop/soul band there that did a lot of reggae."
OK, not archetypal epic. But odd keyboardists have always been rock's secret weapon-imagine Deep Purple without Jon Lord's classical Hammond organ, Pink Floyd without Richard Wright's cosmic freakouts or Argent without, well, Ron Argent.
Often labeled a jam band or indie-rock group, MMJ is neither (or both). Thanks to interplay between Koster, James, bassist "Two Tone" Tommy, drummer Patrick Hallahan and sometimes-guitarist, sometimes-sax man Carl Broemel, the guys wander across genres at will. Their latest studio album, Z, has space rock ("Gideon"), classic reggae beats ("Off the Record") and the best Radiohead rip any band has achieved ("Wordless Chorus"). Yet no matter how far they drift, every song retains a rock 'n' roll core.
MMJ has yet to really connect with the mainstream audience. But after their tour with Pearl Jam earlier this year and selling out mid-size rock clubs this fall, that's bound to change. There are just too many guys looking for MMJ's '70s-style heroics for the band to stay underground much longer.
"I can feel an impact since that tour with Pearl Jam. It was just such a good pairing, musically, and put us into the minds of so many music fans," Koster says.
"And Eddie's so great," he adds with palpable admiration. "He'd come out with us and do an acoustic song, and that will bring everybody in, shouting [in his best Pearl Jam stoner voice], "Holy shit man! Eddie's on!' Then he'd introduce us and sometimes we'd do a cover together, like "It Makes No Difference' by The Band or The Who's "A Quick One While He's Away.' It was pretty cool."
Tours with mega-bands help, but it's been MMJ's own live sets that have built their reputation as a newcomer epic-rock monster. With an unprecedented four straight Bonnaroo shows-including the 2004 set rock dorks love to call "Return to Thunderdome" and the Herculean three-and-a-half-hour 2006 set that featured covers of The Velvet Underground, The Who and The Rolling Stones-MMJ are only a few platinum records and a Loch Ness cottage away from being Led Zeppelin.
OK, that's going too far. But they're still the closest to "Misty Mountain Hop" that Cliff Poncier will find any time soon.
My Morning Jacket plays with Elvis Perkins in
Dearland at House of Blues on Tuesday, Jan. 2.
Doors open at 7 p.m. $23-$26. 619-299-BLUE.