Monsters of Folk | 11.13 | Texas

Words by: Sarah Hagerman | Images by: Manny Moss

Monsters of Folk :: 11.13.09 :: Stubb's BBQ :: Austin, TX

Jim James - Monsters of Folk :: 11.13 :: Austin
"God bless you, Austin, you never let us down!" Jim James cried happily from the stage. The genuine kick that James, M. Ward, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis, joined by Texas' own Will Johnson (Centro-matic) on drums, get out of playing with each other spilled over onto the audience, as a sold out Stubb's BBQ gave James back his enthusiasm in kind for this last show on the U.S. leg of the Monsters of Folk tour.

It was a balmy Friday the 13th that in most other places would have seemed more June than November. A couple weeks shy of America's annual celebration of football, family and tryptophan induced comas, The Monsters set a mood of gratitude early, played on to the darkness of the Stubb's stage by William Vaughn's "Be Thankful For What You Got" (you know, "Diamond in the back/ Sunroof top/ Diggin' the scene with a gangster lean/ Woo-ooo-ooo"), with the word "LOVE" drawn out in green reflective tape on the side of a speaker.

I won't pretend I came into this show unbiased. As a long-time My Morning Jacket fan, I would pay to watch James sing the Yellow Pages – hell, he could pause for a kazoo solo between "plumbing" and "plywood suppliers" and I wouldn't complain. So yes, I was among those who let out a happy yelp at the first notes he sang on show opener "Say Please." Meanwhile Ward is someone who took longer to work his way into my heart, and I've only recently come to deeply appreciate his striking imagery, sincere love of vintage sounds, and that voice that breathes gentle smoke, hovering just out of time. Plus, he's a helluva guitarist, who sent my jaw to the floor a few times during this show. Then there's Oberst, whose earnest Bright Eyes persona I found grating and whose recent slide into sandy-booted troubadour equally so. I went into this show with an open mind, but despite my best efforts, I found myself drifting, and the show's momentum sagging whenever Oberst's solo material took center stage, with the exception being a fairly rousing "Soul Singer In a Session Band," which sounded a few whiskey shots shy of a drunken sing-along with the Monsters swaying in tandem.

Johnson & Oberst - Monsters of Folk :: 11.13 :: Austin
At three hours and 35 songs long, the show moved at a snappy pace, with the Monsters switching up instruments for each song, bounding on and off stage to accompany each other's solo material, or just simply hanging back and taking it in out of the spotlight. Oberst would jump up and hover over Johnson's kit, Ward would practically stick his face in the keys while he jangled, and James would throw his head back behind the mic and let that otherworldly voice pour out into the Texas night, while Mogis snaked between them all, armed with his chosen axes. During "Golden," MMJ's love song to humble barflies everywhere, the other Monsters huddled up behind James, circling the drum kit like it was a campfire. Oberst and Ward leaned in close with their guitars to sing, "Try as you might to fight it/ Love will get you in the end," during Ward's "Lullaby & Exile." Oberst strained to meet a pitch near James when the two joined forces for MMJ's "I Will Be There When You Die," but it was a reminder that in the end these cats are just longtime fans of each other.

The thread tying the distinctive voices together was Mogis, whose chameleon-like instrumental skills were masterful no matter what weapon drawn, be it mandolin, lap slide or electric guitar. Masterful, but never showy, giving each song precisely what it needed. Equal props should be given to Johnson, who's drumming was beat perfect, pumping adrenaline straight to the vein or simply slipping in the background, leaving a bass drum to tickle your toes. He even got a chance in the spotlight for his own genuinely tear jerking "Just To Know What You've Been Dreaming." That's how you win her heart, fellas. These two provided a constantly shifting foundation, and watching them work was a real joy.

M. Ward - Monsters of Folk :: 11.13 :: Austin
Most of the material from the Monsters' record grew some real legs live. Despite the co-writing credits, I think it's fairly obvious whose fingerprints are all over the candlestick for most of those tunes; for good - album opener "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)," which is driven by the spiritual soul man James - or ill - "Man Named Truth," whose title alone signals that it's an overwrought Oberst effort. "The Right Place" is the kind of country jangler made for a raucous show environment, if for nothing else but to evoke cheers and backslaps when the band asks, "Do you like where you're living?" Looking around at my fellow Austinites, there was no way to answer but, "Hell yes!" The molasses of "Slow Down Jo," features Ward's choice words to a drug-addled friend, as James slipped behind his dreamlike vocals with ninja precision. It fell flat on the record for me, but live it had room to stretch. "Whole Lotta Losin'" reminds me a bit of "Walk of Life" by Dire Straits, but that's hardly a bad thing, and it was muscular enough to wrap itself around my brain for a good few hours after our collective gravel bounce ended. The closer, also the last song on the record, "His Master's Voice," was stunning, beginning in a shimmer, building to a squall, and ending on skitters, skatters and spaceship squeals before the Monsters slipped out behind the stage smoke, back into the shadows.

At various times during the show, James introduced each member as "my son," and the show was indeed more a display of familial love than shrapnel from stars colliding. It was refreshing to see the enthusiasm that the three songwriters displayed as the show slipped into each other's worlds. It will be interesting to see if this project, years in the making as is, evolves from here, but for now I just remain struck by how this felt like the most intimate show I've seen at Stubb's Outdoors. It could have something to do with the simple but rich light show that illuminated the whole crowd like we were huddled in an indoor theater. It could have been the crystal clear sound, even when I found myself at the farthest flung back corner bar at one point, which I think had something to do with the Monsters bringing extra equipment to beef up Stubb's system.

Ultimately, it was the easy nature that the group reverberated, the feeling that no matter where you've come from in the wide geographies these three songwriters have drawn, you're welcome at their family table. Casting a glance around the diverse crowd drove that feeling home, as I basked in the glow of a spacious, stripped-down rendition of "At Dawn," and in that moment you can bet I was thankful.

Monsters of Folk :: 11.13.09 :: Stubb's BBQ :: Austin, TX
Say Please, The Right Place, Soul Singer in a Session Band, Slow Down Jo, Man Named Truth, Lullaby & Exile, We Are Nowhere and It's Now, A Song to Pass the Time, I Will Be There When You Die, Golden, Vincent O'Brien, Ahead of the Curve, Wonderful (The Way I Feel), One Hundred Million Years, Chinese Translation, Smoke Without Fire, At Dawn, Baby Boomer, Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.), Temaxcal, To Save Me, Kathy with a K's Song, Goodway, Just to Know What You've Been Dreaming, Bermuda Highway, Look At You, One Life Away, Map of the World, The Sandman, The Brakeman and Me, Smokin' From Shootin', Losin Yo Head, At the Bottom of Everything, Whole Lotta Losin', Another Traveling Song, His Master's Voice

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