Nov 8, 2009
An evening with Monsters of Folk, Omaha 10-28-09
Walking up to the Holland Performing Arts Center, I felt under dressed in my jeans and peacoat. The other concertgoers were dressed similarly, not in ball gowns or anything like that. But all of us were dressed much worse than the architecture and furnishings of the grand theater.
Unlike most rock shows, including the two times I've seen Conor Oberst live and the one M. Ward concert, this wasn't the typical rundown rock club or even the ballroom-turned-rock club, Crystal Ballroom in Portland. This was the city's elegant symphony hall. Actually, probably the symphony hall for the entire state of Nebraska. Looking at the posters for upcoming concerts, there wasn't likely to be another rock band stopping here anytime in years.
But indie supergroup Monsters of Folk chose venue this as their heartland stop, and it soon became clear why. When the red velvet curtain parted, four men dressed in three-piece suits were jamming to the first single, "Say Please." So yes, they were dressed for the occasion. But notice also that they were "jamming," a rare verb to be applied to the setting of this theater.
The irony was plentiful with the musicians more often seen in cowboy boots (Conor Oberst, Jim James) or a baseball cap (M. Ward). However, even more clear was the excitement of a hometown show. While Jim James calls Kentucky home, and Matt Ward hails from Portland, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, the final two members of MOF, were born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. Even beyond that, the supergroup had their origins in this Midwest town, and they recorded the majority of their recent self-titled album in the studio that sits in the backyard between Mogis and Oberst's houses.
While most of my thoughts leading up to the concert were based around the idea, "Oh my gosh, I can't believe I'm seeing Conor Oberst play in Omaha!," I also pondered the sentiments that Oberst and Mogis must have been feeling playing in this venue in their hometown. According to the Omaha Globe Herald, the theater welcomed 1,400 guests that evening, and I would imagine that at least a couple hundred of those were friends and family of the two Omahans. And I can imagine that their parents were a good deal more proud of their sons playing in this elegant venue than in the dirty rock clubs they frequently tour.
In fact, fellow Omaha musician and a spawn of Saddle Creek Records (that Oberst launched when he was 13 and succeeded to put out all eight Bright Eyes albums as well as many by the Faint, Cursive, Maria Taylor, and Rilo Kiley) Tim Kasher of The Good Life sings about the Orpheum, the sister theater to the Holland in "Leaving Omaha" (also of note is that band's name honors the state of Nebraska, as "the good life" is the state's motto. See photo at right)
All to say that playing in this theater must have been a big deal for these guys.
Luckily, it was a big deal for the audience too. That's saying something since we paid $50 a piece to be there. Some crazy people even drove from Kansas City and stayed overnight in a (free) hotel because they had dreamed of seeing Conor Oberst in Omaha all the way from Oregon. But most weren't that crazy.
But as the Omaha World-Herald's front page (that's right, there isn't much happening in Omaha and this city is proud of their music) review of the concert the next day said in the lede of the article, "Anyone curious should know: It was well worth it."
Three hours, 35 songs, all but one from the MOF album and tracks from each of the songwriter's repertoires greeted the listeners from brilliant acoustics. As I've already said, a rock show in an opera house was a new experience for me, and the acoustics blew me away.
Jim James' booming voice was so incredible that it sounded unearthly. I've never been a huge My Morning Jacket (Southern rock band that's James' chief songwriting vehicle) fan, but hearing his voice live was quite an experience. Whether he was singing leads or providing spot-on harmonies behind Conor or M., his voice reigned supreme.
But it had to compete with the brilliance of M. Ward's guitar playing. Having always liked M.'s solo work, it wasn't until I saw him live for the first time last fall that I was converted into a true follower. He's without a doubt one of the best guitarists currently performing, and his folk/acoustic work leaves him without any peers instrumentally.
While Conor Oberst's vocal sandpaper is incomparable to James' smooth-as-silk voice, and his guitar playing stands no chance when compared to Ward's, he was far from overshadowed. His natural stage presence sometimes brought him to the role of leader, even in the democracy of MOF. He was quick to talk with the audience, dedicating songs to hometown friends like Mike Mogis' wife and Todd Fink (of the Faint. Conor said, "This is for my friend Todd Fink. I'm not sure if he's here tonight or not, but this is for him," then launched into "The Big Picture" while I sat in awe of the fact that I was seeing Conor play a hometown show, dedicating songs to other brilliant Omaha musicians.) Plus, his lyrical skills are unmatched by anyone playing current music. (That's right Dylan, your current lyrics don't even compare to Conor's.) I'm not sure if anyone else in attendance picked up on Conor's fateful change of the lyrics of "We Are Nowhere and It's Now," but I heard "She took a small silver wreath and pinned it onto me. She said this one will bring you love. Now I know that's not true, but I keep it for good luck." (Cynical, but oh so Oberstian.)
And Mike Mogis, the quiet man that earned the title of the most awkward person I've ever met in my entire life, too often fades into the back. Never stepping closer than six feet to the nearest microphone, he's easy to miss. But his flawless producing is just as genius, if not more so, than his fellow Monsters. Not to mention the fact that he can play at least two dozen instruments with incredible competency.
As the night passed, musicians passed on and off stage. All four began on stage along with their hired drummer, but slowly they fade off and on stage for each songwriter to play solo or in various combinations. And even when one songwriter was playing lead, another would take over on the other's song. For instance, all four men rocked out to Bright Eyes' "At the Very Bottom of Everything," trading lead vocals on verses instead of Conor singing it all.
Three hours continued in this way, without an intermission.
“If you have to go to the bathroom, just go to the bathroom. If you have to get a beer, do it. We don't mind,” Oberst said. “It was a choice between an intermission and no intermission, and we went with no intermission. You won't hurt our feelings. Everyone's got their needs.”
Besides Oberst's shout-outs to local friends and family, the other musicians commented on returning to Omaha as well.
“The year was 2004 when the Monsters of Folk met in this great town of Omaha. It's very meaningful to be back here,” Ward said. M. didn't give any kind of shout out to Oregon, though, which disappointed me. I have a feeling he'd be surprised to hear there was another Oregonian in attendance that night.
James also honored the city. "We've spent many hundreds of hours here under the careful guidance of Mr. Oberst and Mr. Mogis,” he said. “You did a great job raising these boys.” On that comment each and every Nebraskan in attendance screamed as if they were his or her own sons.
I imagine that had I seen MOF in Portland two weeks earlier or in Minneapolis just a day after their stop in Omaha, they would have been just as good. I'm now naming this the best concert I've ever seen for raw musical talent, performance, the excitement of the hometown show, and let's not forget that tireless stamina. But there's something about seeing Conor Oberst in Omaha that is incomparable to anything else.
**Photos suck because I was only able to snap about five from my waist, without flash, because the operahouse hawks were patrolling**
***I had an excellent adventure in Omaha, which was of course capped off by this concert. I hope to post photos and stories from my pilgrimage in an upcoming post.***