When Jim James comes to town, it's usually as the frontman for My Morning Jacket, the adventurous jam band that has made a habit over the last few years of entertaining 7,000 or so souls at the Mann Center in Fairmount Park on steamy summer nights.
It was a little different on Monday night at Johnny Brenda's, the cozy Fishtown club. The singer with the haunting, luminous voice kicked off a tour for his debut solo album Regions of Light and Sound of God to a packed house of around 200, who snapped up tickets in a matter of seconds when they went on sale last month.
In the music industry, this was what's known as an "underplay," a buzz-building, must-see, intimate event by an act that could easily be playing a larger room. If all went according to plan (and it did), fans would wind up three deep at the balcony rail, standing on tippy toes and craning their necks to catch a glimpse, and taking cell phone photos of their hirsute hero as he played guitar, tapped drum machines and tooted a saxophone (!) while shaking his lion's mane on the stage below.
Regions of Light isn't an unqualified success. But as solo moves by distinguished bandleaders go, it's a wholly legitimate one. James played all the instruments, and on slow-building songs such as "A New Life," a highlight on Monday, his spiritual, seeking nature comes across with renewed clarity as he experiences a crisis of faith and, inspired in part by Lynd Ward's 1929 wordless woodcut novel God's Man, emerges with fresh optimism and self-belief.
James was joined by a four-piece band that utilized live drums, guitars and keyboards. Yet it also put loops, samples and robot rhythms to work in drawing Regions of Light's songs out into soaring, often-transfixing incantations.
James did a fair share of lead guitar shredding. But he also set his pretty, vibrato-less voice to the stark backing of a lone acoustic guitar on tunes such as "Wonderful," the first of a four-song, all-My Morning Jacket encore that included the electro-funk "Touch Me I'm Going To Scream, Pt. 2" and "Victory Dance," and upped the enthusiasm in the room considerably.
"We're still working out the kinks up here," James said before in a pre-encore soliloquy, during which he offered a shout-out to Philadelphia band Dr. Dog. "We're trying to make music with computers in ways we never have before, just trying some [stuff] to see if it works."
At this early stage, "at the beginning of this beautiful journey," as James put it, it's already working just fine. That was attested to by the way James' faithful insisted on staying put in front of the stage even after the post-show music had kicked in, in hopes that they could coax him out one more time.
No such luck. But those fans, and others not fortunate enough to squeeze into Johnny Brenda's on Monday, will get another opportunity to see how James is progressing when he comes back to town to the larger (and also sold-out) Union Transfer on April 27, and then tours throughout the year.