An evening spent with Monsters of Folk, a merry band of musical brothers I have admired for what feels like most of my musical existence: there was no way this wasn’t going to be good.
‘Say Please’ was a democratic opener, showcasing each of the musicians individually and in harmony, while allowing for their distinct styles to shine through – a driving refrain with Conor Oberst crying ‘darlin’ behind it, interrupted by a brief, explosive guitar solo, is everything you come to expect from M. Ward, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis.
Monsters of Folk is not a quest by these men to tread entirely new ground and leave their old musical personas behind; on the album, as in this live extravaganza, it is as much about their own musical heritages as it is about creating something together. Collective writing credits aside, each musician’s mark could be felt more or less strongly in each song, from the Americana jive on ‘Goodway’ and ‘Baby Boomer’, through James’s violent roaring on ‘Losing Yo Head’ and Oberst’s yelpy ‘Man Named Truth’, which was rescued from the typical Bright Eyes mire of introspection by a pretty mandolin and Ward’s rhythmic guitar playing.
These were interspersed with their individual material in some of the most inspired and unselfish collaborations I have ever had the pleasure to experience. They all attacked M. Ward’s ‘Vincent O’Brien’ and ‘To Save Me’ like old friends jamming in the garage, while Oberst shared out the vocals on ‘Lime Tree’ and ‘At the Bottom of Everything’. M. Ward’s vocals can move me to drunkenly sentimental tears and Oberst is the sound of my maudlin teens, yet it was Jim James whose versatile voice was the most integral part of the overall sound and harmonies the band created, with his pitch creating a trippy, otherworldly vibe that pierced the atmospheric lighting on ‘Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)’ and ‘His Master’s Voice’.
Throughout it all sat Mike Mogis, demonstrating that subtle yet unmistakable touch as skilfully on the live stage as he does in the studio, consistently lifting and driving the music to new and interesting places. His importance to the band cannot be overstated – sure, he’s less conspicuous than Oberst shoving a piano off stage or James’s funked-up dancing, but without Mogis’s gentle pedal-steel or furious mandolin, Monsters of Folk simply wouldn’t sound half as sophisticated.
As my dear companion put it, these gentlemen have enough material between them to have kept playing for the rest of their natural lives, and as one spectacular song gave way to another for three non-stop hours, at times it felt like it might never end. Frankly, as long as the usher kept bringing round over-priced hotdogs, I wouldn’t have cared for one minute if I had to sit there until kingdom come. Right there, on that stage, all of my musical dreams were so damn close to coming true.
Words: Lois Jeary