NEW YORK, NY—On a mid-January afternoon, I received an email with the subject line “Urgent Telegram.” I opened it to find a graphic of an actual crinkled, old-timey telegram that stated: “In celebration of his new album Regions Of Light And Sound Of God, you are cordially invited to see Jim James live at the McKittrick Hotel. The concert will be preceded by a performance of Sleep No More…book with haste.”
A month later, I’m standing on line in front of two huge, unmarked doors in Chelsea. A doorman lets us in a few at a time. I check in at a desk, and I’m given my “room key,” which is a playing card. Key in hand, I walk through a dark, twisting hallway, feeling the walls as a guide because I can’t see in front of me, and suddenly I part a curtain and find myself in a glitzy, bustling lounge. Bartenders in 1930s-era outfits cheerfully welcome us and offer absinthe shots.
Before I have a chance to order a beer, a man in a tuxedo summons those of us with the number 4 on our playing cards. I leave my group and follow him to an elevator tucked into a corner of the lounge. He hands out white plastic masks and informs us of the hotel’s only rules: we must wear our masks at all times, and no talking once they’re on. Then he lets us off the elevator onto separate floors. I step alone into darkness and instantly forget that I stood on a Manhattan street in 2013 just moments ago. I’m here for the Jim James concert but I’ve ended up in a real-life episode of The Twilight Zone.
I wasn’t dreaming, nor did I actually plan to spend the night: The McKittrick Hotel is a six-floor warehouse in Chelsea meticulously crafted to resemble a condemned 1930s hotel. It’s also the terrain on which Sleep No More—a haunting work of performance art—traverses. I won’t ruin the surprises, but the basic premise is that a group of actors roam the floors and silently act out different plot lines loosely based on Macbeth. Hotel guests wander at their own will, anonymous behind the masks and free to follow the actors or just explore the massive space, which contains about 100 rooms. My particular journey entailed a long list of surreal occurrences like bloody bathtubs, nude dancers, and an actor who grabbed my hand and led me through a forest to a secret passageway.
The deeply affecting experience of being in this shadowy universe segued perfectly into Jim James’ performance. James has a reputation for creating otherworldly experiences with My Morning Jacket, and after spending three hours wandering this vast abyss of weirdness I got a feeling that his solo show would be no different. With every incredibly strange event I witnessed in the hotel—like deranged Lady Macbeth muttering incoherently as she passed me in a hall—the lines between fiction and reality started to blur. By the time we were funneled into the hotel’s “ballroom” for the concert, I realized it was not a meant to be separate event but an extension of Sleep No More’s trippy odyssey.
The lights dimmed. With a rose in his hand, James and his newly-assembled band emerged on stage wearing the creepy white masks we’d been given at the beginning of the evening (I spotted him earlier in the evening wearing the mask, observing a murder scene with the rest of us). They wordlessly launched into “State Of The Art (A.E.I.O.U),” the eerie first track on Regions…, which builds dramatically against a lonely piano as James alludes to the evils of technology. Departing from the album version, he released his soaring howl and shredded on the guitar at the end of the song—a sound conspicuously absent from the electro-driven Regions.
At first, seeing Jim James play a show more dependent on MacBook effects than guitars felt odd. But as he and his band made their way through the entire album without stopping to speak, each song came to life spectacularly. The dance-party groove of “Know Til Now” got the audience moving (some people still wore the masks), while the upbeat sweetness of “Dear One” and “A New Life” delivered much-needed joyfulness to the room. The beautiful instrumental “Exploding,” with James on acoustic guitar, allowed for a quiet moment of reflection midway through.
The soulful melodies of “Of The Mother Again” and “Actress” continued on the danceable affair as James worked the crowd with smiles and hand-touching. Then, “All Is Forgiven” reprised the evening’s creepy theme with its foreboding saxophone riff and mournful vocals singing about the devil. James and Co. turned “God’s Love To Deliver”—the final song on the album sung in an unsettling high-pitched hush—into a psychedelic jam that left me feeling just as spacey as I did during Sleep No More. They encored with a pair of 1930s standards and a few of My Morning Jacket’s weirdly coolest songs, like “Wordless Chorus” and “Touch Me I’m Going To Scream.”
Shortly before receiving my cryptic telegram, I read an interview with James that foreshadowed this awesomely bizarre venue choice. He said he wanted his solo album to sound like it came from a different time period. Regions definitely achieved this goal: its ethereal assortment of songs doesn’t sound much like anything else out there, past or present. James is a master innovator, a musical Willy Wonka who always has a surprise up his well-fitted suit sleeve and a mysterious gleam in his eyes. He takes distinct paths with every album, but they always converge as transparent revelations of his rich imagination, yielding crowds intensely invested in each choice he makes. On this night, the McKittrick Hotel was James’ mystical domain—a place to make his guests lose themselves in a dreamlike experience that suited his intentions perfectly.