Monsters Of Folk, Coal Exchange, Cardiff

Europe hails a supergroup
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The Independent Culture

What's more annoying at a folk gig – the half-cut guy nonchalantly munching crisps or the one with the carefully cultivated moustache telling him to shush? I'd go with the latter, but thankfully most of this American supergroup's three-hour set hadn't the finger-in-the-ear potential. Indeed, there were as many sonic blowouts, complete with rampant analogue echo, as quiet bits.

Not that the rather flippant name of this ensemble, made up of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, M Ward and the (unbilled) drummer Will Johnson is a misnomer. It's another chance for the non-purists among us to redefine what folk can be nowadays, to the chagrin of those who never forgave Dylan for going electric. For although the guitarists are wont to crowd round the drum-riser shaking their heads in rock-out abandon, their evocative Americana is steeped in the living tradition.

The story is that the four virtuosos first got together five years ago and then became too immersed in their individual, ravely received projects to concentrate on their monster collaboration until recently. Tonight's gig, the de facto frontman Oberst announced, was their first gig in Europe.

Perversely, the opener on their eponymous album, "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)", sounds the most pedestrian, with worrying 10CC middle-of-the-road undertones, but tonight it was one of a half-dozen stand-out tracks, propelled as it was by a drum machine and a crazy light show.

A supergroup is a risky proposition; it could just be a vanity parade, a battle of egos, where each star tries to outshine the other. Or, a la Traveling Wilburys, where the sum of the parts adds up to a neutral lumpen mush.

But the Monsters' interweaving dexterity and virtuosity couldn't dull their raw, ecstatic spirit, only rarely dipping into anything approaching the mundane. Although Jim James's voice was perhaps the most impressive – with his shiver-inducing tremolo – his own songs proved the weakest link. M Ward's toasty warm and soulful tones were gorgeous enough, but for the various duo spots, the Bright Eyes pairing was the most stunning and powerful.

Most of the songs either warned against drugs – "don't trade your soul for Aztec gold", Oberst urged on the finger-picking "Man Named Truth" – or questioned the existence of God ("His Master's Voice"). This was the culmination of their extended encore and also the album's closer, with an aim to "rewrite the bible for a whole new generation of non-believers". A bank of glitchy noise enveloped the crowd as the band bowed out to well-earned, rapturous applause.

The Monsters of Folk could spend all the time in the world in the studio, but they couldn't bottle that ebullient live spirit. Long may their bestial majesties breathe folky fire on us all.

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