Monsters of Folk — the somewhat ironically named collaboration between Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Jim James (credited, presumably for contractual reasons, as Yim Yames) of My Morning Jacket, singer-songwriter M. Ward and producer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis — grew out of casual sessions the quartet engaged in between their own projects. But their show at the Greek Theater Sunday night could have used more of that loose, hootenanny spirit.
Yes, they traded vocals and harmonized, switched instruments (the bass, in particular, was passed around like a baby at a family reunion) and played all but one song from their very fine self-titled album (released by Shangri-la Music) alongside generous samplings from their own work, but the feeling was all business.
It’s not that the marathon show (two-and-a-half hour set, followed by a 15-minute encore) was boring — there was too much talent on hand for that — but there was little camaraderie on display. Instead, the performance gave the audience a chance to check out four very different musicians.
James, who has a spookily resonant voice, is probably the most polished songwriter of the bunch. His songs, such as “Magic Marker,” have a lovely country lilt mixed with some Beatles-styled guitar parts. Oberst remains an idiosyncratic and frustrating talent. When he’s on — the road weary “Soul Singer in a Session Band” and the wry “Man Named Truth” — he’s captivating, but he needs an editor; failing to distinguish between his best material and his worst. Oberst’s line describing a woman who just had an abortion as “breathing just for one” (from “Lime Tree”) is too clever by half, and breaks the somber mood he’s trying to create.
But the real revelation was M. Ward, who is half of She and Him duo with Zooey Deschanel. The least known of the three singers, he had the most to gain from this tour, and he took full advantage. His beautifully grained voice, finely modulated songs and inventive guitar playing (especially his broken-field solo on “One Hundred Million Years”) provided consistent highlights. Mike Mogis acted as the band’s secret weapon, adding the perfect seasoning — pedal steel, electric mandolin, even a triangle — to the songs.
But not until “Hit The Switch” did these Monsters put the pedal to the metal. With Mogis, Oberst and James facing each other in a semi-circle, they turned the song into an intense guitar rave up. During “Losin’ Yo Head,” James ran across the stage and urged Oberst into a guitar battle.
Monsters of Folk play New York’s United Palace Theater on Nov. 6 and Beacon Theater Nov. 8.