Live Review: Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and The Felice Brothers at the Moore Theatre 9/29/15

Live Reviews
Jacob Webb
photos by Matthew B. Thompson (view set)

You'd be forgiven for asking why Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and the Felice Brothers were playing the Moore this September. They were on a brief, West Coast-only jaunt, none of them have records out this year, and because of it, there was barely any publicity for the show. But even for those who walked by the Moore marquee, saw the bill, and walked in, there was still a surprise waiting in store: a night of musical collaboration between seven musicians who were onstage together for no other reason than to enjoy playing together.

Well, that and to warm up for their sets at the Oberst-curated stage at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2015. And that's what the show at the Moore was: a warm up. But it was a hell of a fun one. Rotating on and off of the stage, the three acts played in every possible combination with one another, so it was fitting that the Felice Brothers, who acted as the de facto house band for the night opened up the evening. The Felice Brothers have never been bombastic enough to be pulled in with the Mumford-wave, so their status as one of the '00s most consistent (and consistently underrated) folk-influenced rock outfits remains intact, and their opening forty minute set was a reminder why they're still around after so many of their contemporaries have (briefly peaked and) faded. Their songwriting relies on Ian and James Felice's chemistry rather than on volume dynamics or energy, so the group (currently a quartet) was easily able to settle into a groove that underscored just how steady and confident they are as a live band. "The Big Surprise", "Lincoln Continental", and "Triumph" started the night off with gusto, and by the time Oberst arrived on stage to join in on "Wonderful Life" and "Meadow of A Dream", it was just another peak in an already energetic hour.

However, Oberst's appearance quickly gave way to M. Ward, whose work dominated the middle section of the show. Ward has spent most of the past six years doing collaborative work (primarily with Zooey Deschanel in She & Him) rather working in the lane of his solo career, but his catalog was on full-display during the show's middle third. As as he shuffled around the stage alone moving from one swiftly-picked guitar number to the next, Ward ended up being the unexpected surprise of the evening. His trio of albums from the latter half of the '00s (2005's Transistor Radio, 2006's Post-War, and 2009's Hold Time) have aged very well, and even if he was alone onstage, his performance was nothing short of electric. (Think pre-Dark Bird Is Home The Tallest Man On Earth.) As he worked through a set of cuts mostly from those albums, Ward ended up playing an understated but crucial role as the collective's utility player, adding a fiery guitar solo during the full-band numbers or countering Oberst's pining voice with his raspy croon on the Monsters of Folk numbers that made their way into the set or when the full band returned for "Soul Singer in a Session Band". (This is to say nothing of the impressively suave slide guitar Ward played with his beer during "Man Named Truth".)

Ultimately though, it was Oberst who carried the night, both in name and in energy. The Nebraska songwriter has spent most of the year touring with his punk band Desparecidos, so it wasn't a surprise that the Bright Eyes leader was in a fiery mood that night at the Moore. Typically talkative and prone to theatrics (i.e. standing on the bass drum during a song's climax) he wouldn't usually pull if he hadn't spent the whole year fronting the punk outfit, but it brought a pace to Oberst's catalog that he typically only pulls out for "Road To Joy", "Roosevelt Room", or "The Calendar Hung Itself...". When he wasn't raving up with the Felice Brothers, who served as Oberst's backing band, he tapped into their loose pace for "We Are Nowhere and It's Now", "Well Whiskey", "Method Acting", and a handful of tracks from last year's great Upside Down Mountain. Towards the end of the main set, Oberst brought M. Ward back for a few more full-band numbers, a complete dressing-down of a heckler who requested "Free Bird", and a shout out to his favorite book ("The Bible. Duh. I'm running for president.") to cap off the main set. After a one-two-three punch of an encore that covered each of the acts' catalogs (Ward's "Requiem", the Felices' "White Limo", and the perfectly-chosen closer of Bright Eyes' "Another Traveling Song"), the band thanked the crowd and said goodnight, but the end of the show didn't feel like it typically does. There was no rush to the merch table, no shout out to the openers, no false modesty in their gratitude. And that's because the performance that the three acts put on at the Moore felt more like an open rehearsal or a well-focused jam and hang session than a gig, and the agenda-less take ended up being as much fun for the audience as it was for Oberst, Ward, and the Felices.

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