Monsters of Folk Redefine the Supergroup at Massey Hall
Monsters of Folk headlined Massey Hall on Monday evening, dishing out a 29-song set showcasing their self-titled debut, intermixed with fan favourites by My Morning Jacket, Bright Eyes, M. Ward and even Conor Oberst's recent stint with the Mystic Valley Band.
Monsters of Folk (MOF) is made up of four prominent US musicians - Jim James (of My Morning Jacket), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Mystic Valley Band), Matt Ward (She & Him, M. Ward) and Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Lullaby For the Working Class). Several decades of accumulated experience and creativity coming together to form one supergroup brings a classic debate to the forefront of my mind: the whole versus the sum of its parts. Having seen each of the parts individually before, I was brimming with anticipation for a glimpse of the whole.
Formed in late 2004, Monsters of Folk started as a nickname for the guys as they played a small set of shows, in which each songwriter took turns playing their own material while the others improvised and supported. All egos aside, the four musicians bonded and made plans to write and record an album. After five years in limbo, the project finally moved forward and they released their debut in September of 2009 to widespread critical acclaim.
Oberst seems much brighter these days. After suffering through years in an unforgiving spotlight, he's ditched those Dylan comparisons and drug addictions and come into his own. His diverse songwriting abilities were appropriately displayed at Massey Hall on Monday night as he showcased little bits and pieces of his enigmatic career.
His voice still cracks and falters, evoking sadness and heartbreak on his older material such as 'Kathy with a K's Song' and 'We are Nowhere.' In contrast, 'Ahead of the Curve' and 'Map of the World,' MOF songs on which Conor takes the lead, are filled with hope and optimism.
Personally, I have a soft spot for Matt Ward. He's garnered a great deal of support since the release of She & Him: Volume One, an album he wrote and recorded with actress Zooey Deschanel. His warm and welcoming voice has a certain timeless quality to it, flowing beautifully over the intense finger-picking and strumming of his acoustic guitar.
My night was made when he launched into a rousing rendition of 'Vincent O'Brien' with the aid of the rest of the monsters. Taken from 2003's flawless Transfiguration of Vincent, the upbeat, piano-laden track benefited greatly from a full band performance. His soothing vocals offer the perfect complement to James and Conor, infusing MOF tracks like 'Slow Down Jo' and 'The Sandman, the Brakeman & Me' with a Zen quality that gives the songs a certain sense of natural relaxation.
Mogis is vital to their sound not only in terms of production, but also as a result of his capabilities as a multi-instrumentalist. He is the perfect backing musician - quiet and unassuming, coming to the forefront not by using his voice, but by perfectly accentuating MOF songs with delicate hints of mandolin or pedal steel.
He jumps effortlessly between instruments while simultaneously monitoring the every move of his bandmates, faultlessly anticipating every breakdown and build-up. That being said, Mogis is definitely more than just the cherry on top - he's the glue that holds the pieces together.
Jim James had the most interaction with the crowd, dryly cracking jokes about border drug busts. His grizzly beard makes him look like a member of Mastodon, but his incomparable falsetto voice sets him in a league of his own.
Taking some time off as the lead vocalist in My Morning Jacket, James has clearly benefited from further exploring his passion for folk music.
Monsters of Folk single encore song 'His Master's Voice' was the perfect close to the night: starting with Jim on solo vocals but ending with a full band harmony.
The Monsters of Folk succeed where other renowned supergroups have fallen short: they put aside their individual egos for the sake of collaboration. They make songs together, complete with three part harmonies and intricate, multi-layered instrumentation. As a whole, they fully live up to the sum of their parts. Monday night's two-and-a-half hour set was like four miniature concerts combined into one easy to digest evening of incredible improvisation and musicianship. Check out the full setlist below:
The Right Place
Man Named Truth
One Life Away [M. Ward]
One Hundred Million Years [M. Ward]
Chinese Translation [M. Ward]
Golden [My Morning Jacket]
Ahead of the Curve
Whole Lotta Losin'
I Will Be There When You Die [My Morning Jacket]
We Are Nowhere And It's Now [Bright Eyes]
Lenders in the Temple [Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band]
Kathy With a K's Song [Bright Eyes]
Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)
Vincent O'Brien [M. Ward]
Bermuda Highway [My Morning Jacket]
Look at You [My Morning Jacket]
Wonderful (The Way I Feel) [Jim James + M. Ward]
Slow Down Jo
Soul Singer in a Session Band [Bright Eyes]
The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me
At the Bottom [Bright Eyes]
Map of the World
Smokin' From Shootin' [My Morning Jacket]
Hit the Switch [Bright Eyes]
Losin' Yo Head
His Master's Voice
Words & photos by Matthew McAndrew.