Jim James solo live at the Paramount Theatre, Austin, TX, October 9, 2004

"An evening of solo & collaborative performances featuring
 Bright Eyes, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) & M. Ward"

The Daily Texan

Monsters of folk unite and descend on Austin

by Shelley Hiam

Entertainment | 10/12/2004

The line for the Bright Eyes show Saturday at the Paramount started at 8 a.m. Doors would not open until 7 p.m., but the most dedicated and eager of fans arrived early to ensure front row spots to the general admission event. By 6 p.m., the line wrapped around the Congress Avenue entrance in each direction by a block. The anticipation became impossible to ignore.

What followed was a performance from three of the best indie-folk songwriters - M. Ward, Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes). Opting to forgo the traditional opening, middle and closing act plan, the night was instead a three-hour collaboration of sorts, with no intermission. Sometimes solo, sometimes duet and often all together (including some help from Mike Mogis), the evening was an unique stop for an already one-of-a-kind tour.

The stage was simple - no fancy stage props, lights or even a drum set, despite the ample possibility the Paramount provides. But with music so profound it speaks for itself, the bareness of it all was appropriate. With Bright Eyes touring with everything from just Oberst to a 15-piece orchestra, no show is the same.

The huge movie screen varied between blood red, turquoise and purple and made the occupants on stage seem smaller than their voices, but also made the experience larger-than-life. Even the faintest noise was amplified to the corners of the upper balcony.

M. Ward began with an impressive instrumental. An attentive audience was the quietest probably in the history of an Austin Bright Eyes show. Playing harmonica, guitar and singing with the grittiest, octave-ranging voice of the three, Ward controlled the first third of the set, which included an amazing cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance." Oberst joined the stage for Ward's "O'Brien." Consistently sounding better live than on album, M. Ward's songs took on new life, trickling through the air into the ears of new and old fans.

Jim James broke the ice a little with some humor, describing the evening as a must-have "Monsters of Folk DVD." James' already-haunting vocals sent even more tingles up the spine with the gorgeous acoustics of the theater. Without the support of his five-piece Kentucky band, My Morning Jacket, the songs took on a different, stripped-down form, though nothing was really lacking. A cover of Elvis' "You Were Always on My Mind" was the highlight of the middle portion of the set, replicating the reverb wailings of a folk singer at an empty blues bar.

Bright Eyes began with a few solo songs from Oberst and ended with a new song written for the tour. The change of lyrics on "Waste of Paint" from "son of a banker" to "brother of a folk singer" pleased the crowd. Playing a mix from past albums and a small preview of at least one disc from the double album due out Jan. 25 (one disc is supposedly full of beats), Oberst brought his signature quivering, heartfelt lyrics in the best Bright Eyes set Austin has seen.

Sunday, Bright Eyes recorded its first Austin City Limits taping, which is now in its 30th season. Well-rehearsed from the night before, Oberst took the stage alone with his hair sticking up, looking small and fragile in a room where every eye was on him, including that of the camera.

"Cameras trip you out if you look at them," he said, closing his eyes often to avoid the interaction.

The intimate setting was incredible, the sound was gorgeous and the performance was, again, unmatchable. Oberst's songs seemed like whispered conversations to the microphone, and the audience (which included Britt Daniels) was merely a sea of eavesdroppers. Violently tapping his foot, Oberst seemed poised to explode at any given moment. The intensity transferred to the songs, and the vocals were strong enough to punch everyone in the stomach.

When Mike Mogis joined the stage, the lucky audience was treated to a brand new song, "We are Nowhere and It's Now" from the Jan. 25 album. When M. Ward joined the stage for his "O'Brien," Oberst seemed thrilled to have the company. And when Jim James entered, Oberst looked like a 5-year-old boy on Christmas. Generous enough to share his taping with the two friends, Oberst played the role of musician and fan, often glowing when he got to introduce some of his favorite songs from Ward and James. James played "Golden" from My Morning Jacket's "It Still Moves."

Fresh off the Vote for Change tour, Oberst asked the audience what they would be doing Nov. 2. A voice called out, "Kerry!"

"Good," Oberst said. "'Cause if you don't do the right thing, you're going to hell."

The encore included the true love ballad the three wrote together for the tour. Their unique styles were prominently displayed in a round of each singing a line of the chorus.

Seemingly cursed in Austin (a fan died of a heart attack at a La Zona Rosa show, then Johnny Cash at 2003's Austin City Limits festival), Oberst ended the 12-song taping with "The Bottom of Everything," dedicated to his friend Rose, who had passed earlier that day.

The taping airs on PBS on Jan. 8 and will also feature Wilco's set, recorded earlier last month.

© Jamie Ward 2004

My Morning Jacket Live 2004