As production trucks for My Morning Jacket arrived alongside Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park shortly after 6 a.m. Thursday, Joshua James was embarking on one of the more memorable days of his life.
James, a Nebraska-born singer-songwriter who now resides in American Fork, was one of the rare local artists booked to perform at the Salt Lake City Arts Council's popular Twilight Concert Series, taking place every Thursday this summer.
On Thursday, James and his Utah County band opened for My Morning Jacket, a critically and commercially acclaimed Kentucky-based rock band that this weekend will headline two nights at Colorado's famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
"It's a stress," James admitted after his sound check Thursday afternoon at Pioneer Park. "I'm just a kid from Nebraska. I'm so appreciative they asked me to play."
James was being too modest. Ever since his original digital release of "The Sun is Always Brighter" on iTunes reached No. 1 on the website's folk album list in 2007, he has become a nationally touring folk-rocker. In addition, James and friend McKay Stevens created the Utah County record label Northplatte Records, one of the most successful indie record labels in the state.
James is an early riser, and despite plans to take it easy Thursday morning, he was persuaded by a neighbor to attend a CrossFit exercise class, a strength and conditioning program used by many police academies and military special operations units.
Although James is lean and fit, sit-ups on a concrete floor tore up the skin near his tailbone. When he got home from the workout, he realized that he could not put on the jeans he planned on wearing for the show because of the pain. So, for most of the day including during the sound check he sported workout shorts that resembled those worn by basketball players in the early 1980s.
"People might think I'm making a [fashion] statement, but I'm not," James said.
James' morning wasn't over. He noticed a plentiful amount of cucumbers in his garden, so he harvested them and started making 12 quarts worth of pickles. After that, he baked a loaf of peach-zucchini bread while listening to Willie Nelson tunes.
James and his four band members made it to Pioneer Park at about 3:30 p.m., about 90 minutes before the gates opened to the public. While a large crew for My Morning Jacket was still stringing up a complex lighting design for the stage, James and his band stood underneath a shade tree and watched the end of My Morning Jacket's sound check. My Morning Jacket is one of the James' favorite bands.
James' bassist, Isaac Russell who will perform tonight at Provo's monthly Rooftop Concert Series was rocking his head back and forth as he watched My Morning Jacket "They're kick-a___, man."
After James and his band finished a quick sound check and worked as their own roadies, James' family brought some loose-fitting jeans that didn't chafe his wound. A few minutes before 7 p.m., James and his band started the show, playing eight songs in a brisk 30 minutes. Just like it had done in sound check, James' hat flew off during the first song because of his energetic head thrusts. With a dynamic intensity that bodes well for listeners of his forthcoming album, "From the Top of Willamette Mountain," James with his dark bangs curling over his right eye as he sang played with glee and his band showed a tightness that had been earned over daily morning rehearsals for the past week. (Again, James is an early riser.) James' clear tenor doesn't exhibit a wide range, but there is a rasp that adds humanity and honesty into his probing, foot-stomping songs, whether he led with an acoustic or electric guitar.
As James played, he received one of the best compliments an opening act can receive. In the middle of James' opening set, one of James' musical inspirations My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel wandered onto the side of the stage to watch James.
After a quick meal at Red Rock Brewery, James and his band returned to Pioneer Park to catch My Morning Jacket's epic headlining set, along with more than 17,000 audience members. "I'm here for the party like everyone else," James said.
He said for the rest of his life, he will tell people he once opened for My Morning Jacket. "It's a resume-builder," James said.