Anyone who watched Cool Runnings as much as I did as a kid knows how relevant it is to most parts of life: work, school, relationships. And yet I was still surprised to discover just how closely the Monsters of Folk concert experience—featuring M. Ward, Jim James, Conor Oberst, and Mike Mogis—resembled that inspiring story of the Jamaican bobsled team coached by John Candy.
The Monsters promised us a 2.5-hour set of music from their recently released album and individual repertoires. So the evening began with a couple rousing numbers performed by the whole band (plus Will Johnson on the drums) all snazzily dressed in suits and ties. And then they handed the show over to Mr. Ward.
For those of you who haven’t seen Cool Runnings eight times, all you need to know is that four Jamaican athletes—a nice one, a mean one, a funny one, and an intellectual one—overcome their personal differences to bobsled their way to the 1988 Winter Olympics! It is truly a tale for the generations.
Anyway, M. Ward is the kind, calm, elder-brother bandmate. You can tell by his sweet voice he just wants everyone to get along. He sang us several soothing M. Ward tunes, including “Chinese Translation” and “One Hundred Million Years,” asking Jim out at one point and Conor out at another, a tradition the band members continued throughout the show. This was easily the most pleasant portion of the evening, though, with M. uncharacteristically unbaseball-capped, making eye contact and generally enjoying himself for our enjoyment too.
Then Conor took the stage. Conor is the disagreeable one, who barked and scowled and performed in his own style seemingly separate from the band. When M. joined him on “Smoke Without Fire,” though, his anger eased and they were back in the same bobsled again. (M. is like that.)
After a few Monsters numbers, the light turned on Jim. Jim is the Doug E. Doug member of the group, entertaining yet utterly passionate, and by just being himself, capturing the most attention. He sang “Bermuda Highway Blues” and “Look At You” to a thoroughly giddy audience, and called the rest of the band out to finish off the night. Mogis, by the way, is the intellectual one—so excellent at what he does, all we noticed was that the band sounded amazing.
The group wrapped up the show with stunning renditions of My Morning Jacket’s “Smokin From Shooting” and the Monsters’ own “His Master’s Voice,” proving that despite the comparisons you might make and favorites you might pick while listening to an M. Ward / Bright Eyes / My Morning Jacket concert, the Monsters of Folk can still come together and carry that bobsled across the finish line like heroes. I tried to do the slow-single-clap-turning-into-full-applause thing, but the audience was already cheering too wildly.