As the drummer for My Morning Jacket, Patrick Hallahan has seen his band's name on the same marquee as Bob Dylan's. His close friend and lead singer, Jim James, has appeared in a film based on Dylan's life. His group has covered Dylan's songs in concert. And next Wednesday in West Palm Beach, Hallahan will begin a six-week trek across the United States when My Morning Jacket joins Wilco as an opening act on Dylan's AmericanaramA Festival of Music. Clearly, Hallahan, James and the three other members of My Morning Jacket have established a rapport with the iconic songwriter, and their interactions with Dylan have been …
"Zero," Hallahan says. "We've never met him."
Hallahan, speaking by phone from the back porch of his home in Louisville, Ky., where My Morning Jacket came together 15 years ago, says he isn't even sure why the band was invited to participate in AmericanaramA. The tour will end Aug. 4 in Mountain View, Calif., and along the way will pick up Beck, Ryan Bingham, Richard Thompson and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, who will perform an acoustic set to open the West Palm Beach show.
"We're still kind of in the dark about it," the 35-year-old Hallahan says. "We were just asked by Dylan's camp if we wanted to do it, and how do you turn that down? We said yes right away."
Several times, Hallahan uses the word "surreal" to describe the band's previous experience opening for Dylan. But like anyone who has seen the man perform in recent years, he marvels at Dylan's ability to transform songs as recognizable as "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Tangled Up in Blue" into radically new compositions, to scrape the film of pop culture off them and to bring into focus the "invisible republic" and the "old, weird America" the writer Greil Marcus famously said Dylan's work inhabits.
"Dylan, I feel, casts a surreal web around him," Hallahan says. "I guess not so much with the new music, which is played pretty straightforward, but he's always been known for mixing up versions of songs where you barely even know what he's playing. And then, he'll do a hook or a lyrical cue, and you go, 'Oh, my God, this is 'Shelter From the Storm.' I just can't get over how much he can switch it up."
"I have to take my hat off to the band," he continues. "Because I've met his band, and they have to be so agile and so versatile, because he is just so fickle as a musician. It's beautiful. But I'm sure it's maddening at times, too."
My Morning Jacket, no doubt, shares Dylan's penchant for challenging its audience. Since breaking away from the so-called jam-band scene with 2003's "It Still Moves" and on through 2011's "Circuital," the group has proved wary of repetition, though it has never strayed far from its own strange republic. A listener is as likely to find the influence of Prince or Black Sabbath haunting a My Morning Jacket album as he is to detect the more-obvious presence of the Band or the Allman Brothers. The band didn't title one album "Evil Urges" for nothing.
While Hallahan says My Morning Jacket has yet to begin working on its next album, in a recent Rolling Stone interview, James let slip that he has a "new vision" for the band, though he refused to elaborate. A restless songwriter, James has long operated outside the group, recording George Harrison songs under the name Yim Yames, collaborating with M. Ward and Conor Oberst in Monsters of Folk, and contributing vocals to albums by artists such as Booker T. Jones, Tift Merritt and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In February, he released his first full-length solo effort, "Regions of Light and Sound of God."
"I almost think that the new vision is to not have a vision," Hallahan says. "I just really think what [James] was doing songwriter-wise, before he had another outlet, I feel like he was pushing every kind of song that he wanted to write on My Morning Jacket, which is a great thing, and that's kind of what gives us our diversity. I just have a feeling that we're going to begin to focus more on our strengths, which is playing live together versus building a song with overdubs and stuff like that."
Before that happens, the AmericanaramA tour and its elusive master of ceremonies beckon. Hallahan expects Dylan to remain as recondite backstage as he appears on it.
"I get the sense that he only makes himself present when he wants to be," Hallahan says, later adding, "We're not a desperate group of people, so we're not going to be knocking down his door. It's his tour, and we find it's up to the person who's headlining the tour to reach out and create that kind of environment. We'll leave the ball in his court."
My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Bob Weir and Bob Dylan will perform beginning at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 26, at the Cruzan Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansburys Way, in West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $32.10-$95. Festival-lawn and reserved-seat "4-packs" are available for $75 and $125, plus service fees. Go to LiveNation.com.