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Monsters of Folk finesse Orpheum

Monsters of Folk finesse Orpheum
Photo by Jeff Luke

Upon hearing the eponymous release from Monsters of Folk, I feared that the gimmick wouldn't last; I feared that again a group had been formed that could never surpass the greatness of each member's other projects. And if you've been keeping up with their press it appears that the correlations to their older cousin, the Traveling Wilburys, might be a bit much to live up to. If all you ever had was the album to listen to, then yes, this would be just another mediocre "supergroup" of indie rockers, but to hear them live was a whole 'nother story.


For nearly 3 hours and 30+ songs, this foursome of Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Mike Mogis (producer, Bright Eyes), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), and M. Ward (She & Him) let loose their inner demons on stage, cooked up some of the best ballads of their own and produced more goosebumps than I've felt at a show in some time. 

The Orpheum certainly was the best venue for the band to perform and before the night was through it felt as if they had inhabited the space, bringing with them spirits of music's past. All the members were decked out in seersucker style suits (Ward especially dapper in a three-piece) and for most of the evening their music matched their presence. Seamlessly moving from their new album and their individual works, all five artists on stage continually rotated between instruments with Oberst, Ward, and James each taking their turn on bass and keys when not playing acoustic and electric guitars.


It was evident from the start who wrote most of the songs and which members truly are the back bone of the band,  Ward and James. Not only do they lead most of the bands songs, but also had a larger chunk of the set-list devoted to their individual songs. Jim James' solo performances of his older MMJ songs were nothing short of breathtaking, performing pitch perfect renditions of "Golden," "I Will Be There When You Die," and "Bermuda Highway" (amongst others), and M.Ward brought great stomping songs from his recent albums such as "Vincent O'Brien" and "To Save Me."
 
Conor Oberst
Conor Oberst
Photo by Jeff Luke

To be honest, I don't know Conor Oberst's music that well (solo or with Bright Eyes), but his warbly Dylan-esque delivery was at times spot on, and when singing his own tunes his angst seemed a bit much amidst Wards' and James' croons. Oberst did his own tunes often with historical side-man Mogis, and James and Ward often played off each other for their pieces. Other than this awkward spacial relationship on stage, the four of them played together like they've been doing it for years, often interchanging singing duties on other members songs and to great effect. Mogis was the unsung hero of the night, mainly keeping to himself on stage left, but his virtuosity in alternating between pedal steel, mandolin, electic 12-string, dobro, bass and electric six string was simply masterful.


Jim James
Jim James
Photo by Jeff Luke

The lighting effects were state-of-the-art stunning and the brilliantly red backing curtain which framed the lighting for the stage further gave the setting more of an old time feel, yet the vocals truly were the star of the evening. Jim James wowed the crowd with his vocal capacity, range and depth. Highlighting some of the best songs by the band such as "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F)" with his R+B tinges, then backing the others all night, alternating between subtle howls and intense shouts of ecstasy. Ward of course brought his trademark gravelly delivery, but also surprised with more intense growls than I ever recall him emoting on his albums. Oberst at times felt timid taking on the lyrics of the other performers, but in singing his own songs and backing the bands tunes he brought sheer energy to his perfromance.


I was surprised at how the whole thing went, really. The frenetic energy in the half-full auditorium was palpable all night, with fans readily hooting and hollering in the middle of songs. Then as they finshed their set and into the encore, the whole crowd stood for the first time of the night, many filling the center aisle to get closer to the stage. It was an amazing performance and at times almost a trip back in time, to many places and times with each stop elusively better than it's predecessor, until there were no more and time ran out.

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