The 'Monsters' played their final U.S. date in Austin to a sold out crowd at the always awful Stubb's amphitheater. It was friday night, the weather was perfect and the crowd had just finished the latest issue of Paste magazine. But none of that mattered to me. Jim James, Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Mike Mogis, and Will Johnson were all that I cared about. At first glance the appeal is obvious -- five guys with enough talent to fill three solid hours of music with no opener. Sure, why not?
The band played almost every song from their above average self-titled debut album, but the night was more about their respective other band songs for me. I missed the tour in 2004 and have never forgiven myself. All of these musicians have soundtracked my life at some point starting back in high school, so it was absolutely necessary that I put up with the huge venue and strange crowd. Obviously the soundtrack of my life in high school started with Mr. Oberst. He may even have a song titled that. There are a handful of indie artists that are completely polarizing and Oberst may be at the top of that list. I've had the argument many times and each time I come out victorious. Or at least in my mind. There is no denying his songwriting talent. Yes, he's kind of an ass but have you ever heard of a guy named Bob Dylan? Conor has undeniably influenced an entire generation of songwriters and bands. When Bright Eyes haters start on a rant, I only ask to see their CD collections so that I can point out the bands that wouldn't exist without the Nebraskan. The Monsters of Folk show could be called the Bright Eyes show featuring MoF but that was okay in my mind since two of the five monsters call the band their home. Oberst played a number of songs from "I'm Wide Awake..." throughout the evening while James and Ward provided vocals and various backing instruments. This was the theme of the evening and provided some incredible moments especially when the songwriters gave verses to another vocalist. Which brings me to Jim James, more commonly known as Yim Yames.
It gets said in every interview and review but... Jim James' voice is an instrument. I don't know how else to put it. He is flat out one of the best vocalists in all of modern music. Once drowning his voice in silo reverb, he has now accepted his talent and taken it to new heights. (Warning: more Jim James review cliches ahead.) His simple "oohhs" and "aahhs" gave me chills. Literally my body shook. Oh, and I couldn't see him for 90% of the show. Due to Stubb's being one of the most poorly planned venues in Austin, Mr. Yames was obscured by a wall of speakers at my standing location. It didn't matter. He presented his case and I received it loud and clear. I have seen My Morning Jacket and it remains in my top five concerts of all time, but this was a different Jim. A more polished and shaved head Jim. Well at least until the last 20 minutes of the show where he almost took out the rest of the band doing what can only be described as tornado solos. The highlight of his material was "I Will Be There When You Die" from MMJ's first album, Tennessee Fire. Absolutely stunning.
Montgomery Ward, Matt Ward, M. Ward, M. It doesn't matter what you call him; the fact remains the same: He is a phenomenal guitar player. His unique style was crafted from various legendary guitarists of the past. He's created a sound for himself that is instantly recognizable and has recently taken him to a new level of fame. Ward has a refreshing amount of confidence these days and is almost a different person from the time that I saw him in 2004. Once a ball cap wearing soft spoken guitar virtuoso he is now a stage prowling crooner. He knows he has the voice and he knows people are listening to him. "Vincent O'Brien" was my favorite performance of the night and brought smiles to every performer on stage. Which brings me to my next point.
They smiled. Yes, even Conor was smiling throughout the show. An incredible achievement for a group of guys that have played thousands of shows between them. It was proof that behind all of the supergroup hype is a group of friends that are playing music together because they want to. They're touring because they want to be on the road together sharing each other's music with the masses. I don't think there is anything fake about their enthusiasm or love for each other. They were not put together by some record company executive that wanted to cash in on the indie boom. It's simply friends creating music together.
The highlight of the night for me was watching the main monsters hand over the reins to drummer Will Johnson. In my mind there is no one more deserving of getting a touring spot on the MoF tour than Will. The prolific songwriter has long been a staple of the Texas songwriting scene with his groups Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel but now he is being introduced to a bigger audience with this tour and his recent album with Jason Molina. It's better late than never but few artists have impressed me with their musical integrity more than Will Johnson. So it brought a huge smile to my face and a surprising amount of emotion to the area above my nose when Jim James introduced his "favorite son" to the crowd and handed Will the acoustic guitar. The following chords introduced the song "Just to Know What You've Been Dreaming"; the standout track from his solo album, Vultures Await. Jim James provided background vocals which created a new mountain somewhere in the Himalayas. Perfection.
The night was filled to the top with folk songs, rock & roll moments, amp standing, and the occasional man love. During one of the encore songs Conor was standing on Will's drums while Will played Conor's guitar with his teeth. I wouldn't believe it either if I wasn't there seeing it with my own eyes. While in another song the smoke framed Jim James' vocals in the most dramatic fashion. That's right I said framed his vocals.
As the decade winds down and every publication puts out their "best of the 00's" lists I find it fitting that the Monsters of Folk are touring in the last months of 2009. In 2000, these guys were playing to barely 25 people in small clubs and basements trying to make enough money to get to the next town. Now they're considered some of the best songwriters of their generation and selling out venues around the world. As Jim, Conor, Matt, Mike, and Will took their final bows I thought about what each of their top moments of the decade were and then realized that it was probably happening right before our eyes.