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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

19 February 2011

Monsters of Folk

When it comes to music, the term “supergroup” gets thrown around often. The rock group, Cream is generally considered the first to have the name bestowed on them. But here in the U.S., while we might have heard of Eric Clapton, nobody on this side of the Atlantic had heard of…well,
the other two guys (Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce). In 1969, another prototypical supergroup called Blind Faith teamed Clapton and Baker again, adding Stevie Winwood of the Spencer Davis Group and…some other guy…named Rick Grech.

Over the years, there have been many other supergroups, some of which barely deserved the title. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young? Why, yes! Bad Company? Puh-lease. As Wikipedia observes, “The category is not rigidly defined.”

In the 1980s, the Traveling Wilburys were a legitimate supergroup. George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and ELO’s Jeff Lynne? Talk about super! And speaking of the Traveling Wilburys, there is another, current band in which the end result is way more than just the sum of the individual members.

The names M.Ward, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Jim James may not mean much to you, but to us indie-rock freaks they are very familiar. Ward has been around as a solo artist for a long time. Oberst and Mogis have been in a couple of groups, most notably one called Bright Eyes. Jim James is in My Morning Jacket. They’re all in their 30’s and have been kicking around a while. They’ve all achieved a degree of fame and respect if not the popularity and commercial success of overnight sensations like a Justin Bieber, say.

As the guys themselves explain, they got to know each other while touring with their respective bands. The idea formed to do some stuff together. They tongue-in-cheekily called the project the Monsters of Folk. It’s a side project that they do just for fun. But if the term “supergroup” is applicable to anyone, it is to them.

I stumbled on the Monsters as they appeared on the terrific Austin City Limits program on PBS a couple of weeks ago. I did not recognize them at first; just a bunch of guys in dark suits playing some decent music. “Decent” music? Hang on…this is way better than just “decent.” And then... Wait a minute...hey, that’s Conor Oberst! And Matt Ward! Whaaaaaat?! I quickly went to the internet and saw who the band was. I remember reading something about the project, but all of the guys are involved in many different projects so I didn’t realize they’d taken their act on the road, as it were.

The Austin City Limits show was literally the best concert I’ve ever seen in my life. And that’s saying something! Every song is incredible, even the slow ones. MOF is an unbelievable live band. These guys can play! All of them play multiple instruments and sing - except Mogis, he doesn’t sing lead. But he is an extremely talented guitarist and equally awesome on the steel guitar, mandolin, bass guitar…and, hell, anything else that he happens to pick up. As the "quiet Monster" he is the backbone of the group.

I’ve always loved the music of M.Ward and Conor Oberst separately. Hearing them together, trading lead vocals in the songs is surreal. Their unique voices blend very well together. Back in the day we used to listen to Beatles’ songs, trying to figure out if it was John or Paul singing. It’s like that with MOF too. Only…there is the addition of Jim James from My Morning Jacket who has a voice that has to be heard to be believed. Even the drummer, Will Johnson picked up an acoustic guitar and sang a song.

While they call themselves the Monsters of Folk, there is nothing Pete Seeger-ish about them. They really are a rock band. They do their share of softer, acoustic stuff, but they do love to rock out. Jim James goes pretty crazy. I mean, it’s not Ozzy or AC/DC (a group that has never done a ballad, by the way), but it’s not Air Supply either.

After the ACL show, I punched it up on the PBS website and watched it again in its entirety from the beginning. I don’t believe I’ve ever been so blown-away by a live performance.

Of course I downloaded the album from iTunes. Ironically, I like their live stuff better – there’s more spontaneity and improvisation.

Below is one of the very few videos MOF have produced. It was made before they recruited Will Johnson, so Jim James fills in (a little awkwardly) on the drums here. To me, it is four minutes of pure heaven. Listen to Mogis' guitar. This guy is so amazing! In the 1970's (and with more hair) he would have been a guitar god. Not to diss the other guys; they're all incredible musicians.

LATE EDIT: I just watched the clip of Austin City Limits that I posted, and realized that it's only 20 minutes long! Gyp! There is so much more to hear on the full episode, I really hope you do watch it.

If you like music and have an hour or so to spare, it really is worth going on the Austin City Limits website and watching the Monsters of Folk show. I’ll post the link to it below. Wear earphones for the full effect! I love the fact that there are still bands out there with guys in them who like to play real guitars, write and sing really good, clever, intelligent songs…songs that are not over-produced and vocals that aren’t Auto-Tuned to death.

Watch the full episode. See more Austin City Limits.

They open with "Say Please," but I have to admit the "live" version just puts the video on the bus. The rest of the songs are equally strong, even the slow ones. As I'm writing this I've got the ACL video on in the background, which I do a lot. I wanted to write something here about which songs I like the best, but they're ALL so damned good. I'm just awestruck by this - can't believe how much I like it. I don't even have a least favorite song! It's been a long time since I've like a group this much. (The last ones were The Rosewood Thieves the Low-Stars but sadly, both seem to be in a period of inactivity.)

I love the way Ward, Oberst and James trade off the vocals within the song, and their harmonizing is beyond belief. I love the way Matt Ward (his friends just call him "M" so that's what he goes by) plays the guitar like Johnny Cash did. I like the fast songs better, naturally, but only slightly. They do an astounding version of My Morning Jacket's "Smokin' From the Shootin'" which will make you as big a Jim James fan as I am right now. They close with a foot-stomping, jaw-dropping version of "Losin' Yo Head." By the end of that last song I am in nirvana.

I don’t know when or even if the Monsters of Folk will tour again. Their get-togethers seem to be sporadic. But I can assure you, if they ever do appear anywhere east of the Mississippi River, you’ll find this particular music fan in the audience.

Monsters of Folk on Austin City Limits

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