By now, the Louisville lineage of My Morning Jacket is pretty much common knowledge.
The celebrated rock ensemble formed in Louisville, cut its initial recordings in nearby Shelbyville and honored the Derby City regularly as fame took the band from local bars and clubs to festivals and concert halls around the world.
With the release next month of its album Circuital, My Morning Jacket is celebrating those roots. Having cut 2008's wildly popular Evil Urges in New York, frontman Jim James and company returned to Louisville last year, set up a makeshift recording studio in a church gymnasium, and came up with a record that made the band feel, in all senses of the term, at home.
"It was very sweet," James said. "We had one session in the summer. It was so hot. But the heat really brought us together. I feel like you can hear the heat in the air in those songs. We just wanted it to be natural, where we were getting our main performances in one take. It just turned out that this beautiful old church gym where we set up to try some stuff out worked perfectly. And being in Kentucky, close to family and friends, gave us that full-circle feeling."
"For our last couple of albums, we intentionally put ourselves in situations that weren't in our comfort zones," My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan said. "We did that just to see what it would yield, because you don't want to get caught in a rut. But then we very much wanted to come back to Louisville this time. Everything started out as a demo session. We didn't even know at first that we would be making an album. It ended up working out very organically."
Much of the music on Circuital has been kept under wraps. But a limited-release single of the title tune was issued this week. It's a spacious-sounding song, mildly reminiscent of the more atmospheric psychedelia from the band's early albums. You hear it in the ominous guitar patterns, James' reverb-accented vocal wail and the eventual rockish detour that defies common categorization.
"The songs themselves always dictate the record," James said. "Then you kind of follow. Before I knew that, I would come in with all these grand ideas about a certain way I wanted things to be. But then at the end of the day, you only have the songs that the universe has given you at that point in time."
The road back to Lexington
Here is the curious thing: For all the roadwork it has clocked since its formation in 1998, My Morning Jacket has played Lexington exactly three times. The first was on a dirt-floor stage in the basement of the long-since-vacated Mecca studios on North Limestone in 2001. The others were opening gigs at the defunct Lynagh's Music Club (now Cosmic Charlie's) in early 2002. The band shared bills with the Ohio rock troupe Howlin' Maggie that January and with the veteran (and Louisville-born) roots, rock and R&B brigade NRBQ that May, during the club's final month of operation.
Hallahan remembers that last show well. It was his first performance as a member of My Morning Jacket. A lifelong Louisvillian, he was pals with James long before joining the band. But his presence has always been felt. He is generously credited as band photographer (under the moniker "Sir Patrick T. Hallahan") on the liner notes for My Morning Jacket's 1999 debut album, The Tennessee Fire.
"We've been so close over the years that we have kind of let each other be," Hallahan said. "I think it's important for the working environment of a band to not micromanage each other. It's easy to go down that path. But we have definitely gotten to a point in our friendship and in our band/business relationship that everything is pretty harmonious."
This weekend, nine years after its last shows here, My Morning Jacket finally returns to Lexington. And just as Circuital reconnects the band with its Louisville beginnings, Sunday's concert at Memorial Coliseum rekindles an underlying Lexington connection.
James was an art student briefly at the University of Kentucky during the mid-'90s. That's when some of the initial sparks of ideas and songs for the band began to take shape.
"I began the My Morning Jacket project in my dorm room at Holmes Hall at UK on my buddy Todd's 4-track," James said. "A few of the first shows I ever played were in places likes Common Grounds, Yat's (a '90s eatery at South Hill Station), open-mike nights and such.
"I worked many jobs in Lexington ... at Fazoli's and Subway, in landscaping. You name it. Walking the streets of Lexington, particularly downtown and up into the beautiful sections of Third Street, filled my mind with so many crazy ideas and ghosts. There are a lot of ghosts in Lexington, particularly where Boots' bar used to be and in the Reynolds Building. After many walks, I have come to find most of them are good."
Circuital is set for release May 31, with a lengthy summer tour to follow, starting in June. The Memorial Coliseum date is, in essence, a warm-up for the more formal concert trek to come. But it's also an opportunity for one of Louisville's finest rock 'n' roll exports to reacquaint itself with a neighboring city that played a role in helping the band find its feet.
"I think it's fantastic," Hallahan said. "I just wish we would have planned something like this a little sooner. A lot of us have deep personal relationships with Lexington. It will be great to be back on those streets again."
"I cannot believe how long it has been," James said. "I have deep ties to Lexington and have come back many times over the years. I am always amazed at how much Lexington seems to be growing and how so much of it seems so positive.
"We went to see Sharon Jones at the new Buster's and were blown away by the venue. There is also the volume of local talent, like Ben Sollee (who will open Sunday's concert) and These United States.
"The spirits are deep in Lexington for me."