Another Travelin' Band

Monsters of Folk on Friday, Friday, Fridaaaaay

Five years ago, Jim James, Conor Oberst, and M. Ward teamed with Saddle Creek producer Mike Mogis for a short tour that established the three songwriters as new voices of indie folk, and sold out the Paramount Theatre.

That show played more like a songwriters in the round session: taking turns on their own tunes, occasionally pairing off, and combining full force for several covers, like Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.”

Armed with an album of original collaborative tunes as the Monsters of Folk, the quartet, with local folk beast Will Johnson on drums, returned to a packed house at Stubb’s Friday night, and cemented their stature as indie icons across a three-hour, 36-song set that rarely paused for breath or contemplation.

Unlike their previous effort, M.O.F. ‘09 congealed with Frankensteinian force, each songwriter’s unique style and sensibility still prevalent, but merged impressively with the others'. James’ soulful trill ran high to Ward’s scratchy, deep croon, while Oberst’s trembling vocals darted in between. Adding Johnson’s distinctively clipped drawl in for harmonies only bolstered the band’s heartthrob appeal, with the five members decked out in suites that signaled the final stop of the group’s U.S. tour as the premium event it proved to be.

The band opened with “Say Please” from its freshly released eponymous debut, each member taking verses and trading turns on the piano as they drove through the James-led “The Right Place,” Oberst’s “Soul Singer in a Session Band,” and Ward’s plaintive bent on “Slow Down Jo” and “Lullaby & Exile,” which along with the Southwestern cut of “Man Named Truth,” immediately showcased a lack of ego from each of the headliners as they blended immaculately in sound.

Oberst took the first solo break without a pause in the set, digging back into Fevers and Mirrors for “A Song to Pass the Time” alongside Mogis, one of only a few Bright Eyes songs that Oberst offered. Whereas James and Ward both sliced the set with older material – James delivering the boozy yearning of My Morning Jacket’s “Golden” and “Bermuda Highway,” and Ward rocking out with the full band on “Vincent O’Brien” – Oberst largely stayed on post-Bright Eyes material like Cassadaga’s “Smoke Without Fire,” though “Hit the Switch” from Digital Ash In a Digital Urn climaxed in a spectacular electric guitar-fueled thrash from the band center stage.

Locally, the highlight of the night came when James called Johnson from behind the kit to deliver his own “Just To Know What You’ve Been Dreaming” from Vultures Await, establishing his own monster folk credentials as James’ harmonies shaded the ache. Yet the M.O.F. proved to be at their best when unloading new tunes, the traded verses of “Baby Boomer,” the shamanistic glow and pulse of “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)," the winding narrative of “Temazcal,” and the set closing pop romp of “Losin’ Yo Head.”

The only question of the night seemed to be how the band would follow up such a tour de force and shut down the evening. Re-emerging for the four-song encore (commenced by Oberst, once more apologizing for his George Bush-inspired rant against Texas several years ago at Fort Worth's Ridglea Theater), M.O.F. launched into Bright Eyes’ “Sing Sing Sing,” a collective reprise from their 2004 show that this time featured a verse taken by Johnson as well.

The group’s “Whole Lotta Losin’” packed a punch of fuzzed-out guitar as Oberst took to the drum riser and James, Ward, and Mogis flung themselves around the stage, before an equally jubilant, tour-closing dedication of “Another Travelin’ Song.” Most surprising, though, especially after the fervent release of the encore, was the night’s closer of “His Master’s Voice,” James letting his falsetto flow through crowd as the song descended into a wash of static and reverb, sustained until the five returned to the stage to take their final bow.

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Monsters of Folk, M. Ward, Jim James, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, Will Johnson

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