Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
It makes sense that Jim James would choose to perform at the McKittrick Hotel, home of Sleep No More. Both experiences — a rock show by the My Morning Jacket frontman, and the immersive theatre performance — terrify in the same way. Rollercoasters you get on knowing they will end? Ingesting the occasional controlled substance? Writing things you post online knowing some people will attack you for them? That’s the variety of ultimately pretty tame losing of control I’m cool with. I like to be in control of my losing of control, if that makes sense. Both Jim James and Sleep No More represent a truer and more extreme dismantling of inhibitions, and both revel in the results. Or, as James puts it, both “blend theater and raw emotion.” Shudder.
“James took the stage wearing the venue’s signature mask, and bearing a single rose.”
Briefly, Sleep No More is this experimental theater event — a interactive show based loosely on Macbeth — in which you pay a bunch of money to wander alone around the labyrinthian former luxury hotel on Manhattan’s far west side wearing an Eyes Wide Shut mask while actors play out scenes in front of and something with you. “This is the most amazing and transformative piece of theatre I’ve ever seen in my life,” said one devotee in a typically gushing review. The appeal is in this total surrender to the unknown. Fincher’s The Game on a less complete scale. Total surrender to the unknown is exactly how my first MMJ show felt. It was at SXSW in the mid 2000s. They played this cavernous space that had the look — bleachers and slippery floors — of a high school gym and about the same level of ventilation. It was Bikram-Yoga-hot in that place. You were already participating in a kind of surrender just by choosing to stick around. And then they started playing – five men, not boys in stovepipe jeans with brave new crops of facial hair, but broad shouldered, hairy, fully-grown men – and it seemed like the walls themselves started to sweat. These guys played the kind of viscerally challenging, aggressive music that has its roots in deep darkness, but they played it with an elevated, optimistic energy. And that scared me. Hope, after all, is way riskier than cynicism. I thought about that when James took the stage the other night at the hotel, dressed up, wearing the venue’s signature mask, and bearing a single rose. It was a sweet, vulnerable kind of entrance, a nod to his appreciation for this unique space. And though the show went on to achieve a kind of mellower take on the frenzy we’ve come to expect from full-on MMJ, it was his entrance that stuck with me. So genteel, so awkward, so unabashedly genteel and awkward. “I just feel like the environment there is so beautiful,” he said afterwards, using a word – “beautiful” – you’ll hear from him a lot. “I wanted to be a part of that. I also love the spirit of adventure and exploration that comes with the play. I feel like these kinds of experiences we can share with other humans in the flesh are so important these days in the sea of technology. That’s why live performance is so special, the Internet can never kill it.” Amen.