Conor Oberst delivered an early Christmas present on Friday.
Longtime fans were treated to a show featuring selections taht dated back to when he was a warbly-voiced teenager as well as a bunch of brand new tunes at Friday’s show at the Witherspoon Concert Hall at Joslyn Art Museum.
The entire night felt like a coffee house show — the kind these artists did a decade or so ago — but on a much grander scale.
With Oberst seated and strumming on guitar, musician friends joined him for songs from his entire catalog while just more than 1,000 people looked on.
Oberst played Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk songs along with solo material. The only stuff he didn’t touch was from Desaparecidos, and those songs wouldn’t work well with an acoustic guitar.
I was amazed at how much more talented and confident he was on Friday compared to shows from only five years ago. He bantered with the audience, joked about the apocalypse, talked about new songs and he played guitar and piano like a pro. (I honestly never thought he was a very good guitar player, but his chops have seriously improved. Is Mogis giving lessons?)
Oberst held his own for the entire show, though he got assistance from Orenda Fink of Azure Ray on backup vocals and some standout playing from multi-instrumentalist Ben Brodin on guitar — electric, acoustic and slide — and vibraphone.
When the show started, Oberst unceremoniously marched onstage, picked up a guitar and started strumming “The Big Picture.” The audience responded with a few cheers. They stayed reverently quiet for most of the rest of the night outside of Oberst’s requests for a singalong and polite applause after songs and during a few special moments.
I was happy to hear him play some of my favorite Bright Eyes songs, including simple yet honest love song “First Day of My Life.” For me, that’s one of his best and I think I saw him play it once. Once.
He followed with “Common Knowledge” and “Arienette,” quiet tunes, but ramped it up with “Cape Canaveral.” Oberst strummed and banged out the beat on his acoustic while Brodin played quiet lead, but they quickly rocketed into a loud, emotional dirge.
Oberst made continued references to the end of the Mayan calendar and rumored doomsday that brought a lot of giggles.
“After we’re done, you all will have about 45 minutes left,” he said to laughs. “I really do appreciate you guys coming, all things considered.”
Oberst reached deep into the well to play “June on the West Coast,” another personal favorite. The tune came out on Bright Eyes’ 1998 album “Letting Off the Happiness.” Oberst, then only 18, sounded shaky and I always thought that was part of the appeal. On Friday, he played it straightforward, but still with his emotional wail, and it was great. I also think I’ll never see him play it again.
He also eventually played some new songs including “Night at Lake Unknown,” a song about insomnia and dreams with such lines as “when I can’t sleep, my mind’s a circle.” Oberst said it was inspired by an iPhone app.
“I don’t have an iPhone, but the person I sleep with does. Late at night when I have some insomnia tendencies, there’s this application that places nature sounds,” he said. “My favorite is one called ‘Night at Lake Unknown.’”
He followed with a self-professed “exceptionally sentimental” tune, and the best new song of the evening, about raising a young boy that had a refrain of “soon you’ll be grown and then you’ll be on your own.” It was touching tune with a Harry Chapin, “Cat’s In the Cradle”-kind of vibe, but not quite so cheesy.
Oberst was captivating, but Brodin’s talents added depth to the songs. His work on the vibraphone brought a pretty yet stark melody to many of the songs, especially “Lua.” He even used a violin bow to get these pretty, but strange, sounds out of the vibes.
Fink was on and off stage a lot. Her true vocal talents offset Oberst’s emotional singing voice and the highlight of her performance was “Lua.” It made the song (just like Gillian Welch did in the original) and she even took a verse of the tune. It made it even more haunting.
Oberst dedicated songs, including a lot of the new ones, to his friends in the audience, many of whom were area musicians you probably know well.
During the encore, Morgan Nagler and Jake Bellows of opening band Whispertown (their opening set was great and also featured a lot of new tunes) joined Oberst and company onstage.
With friends coming on and off stage and Oberst debuting lots of new material, the stage felt like a living room full of friends and instruments where the audience got a peek at something new and exciting.
Oberst finished the set with “Breezy” before re-entering for an encore that started with “An Attempt to Tip the Scales.”
The show’s climax came with “Make War,” a song about a love that’s ended, and all of Oberst’s friends joined him onstage to sing.
With several people seated and strumming and others crowded around microphones, it really drove home the living room feel.
“I hope you have a great holiday,” Oberst said before hinting, again, that the world was going to end at midnight. “It’s not gonna matter. You’re not gonna have a holiday. Have a good 40 minutes.”
“After we’re done, you will have about 45 minutes left. Run around in the street. Have sex. Pray to God. I dunno,” he continued. “I really do appreciate you guys coming here, all things considered. Normally, I’d tell you to go to the merch booth and buy a T-shirt or a CD, but you won’t get to wear it. I mean, you could listen to the album in the car or something, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Oberst finished the set with a slightly modified version of “Waste of Paint,” another tune I haven’t heard him perform much. Though the song ends with “all I want, to be loved,” I don’t think there’s a question that Oberst has all the love he needs, especially in his home town. As he took a bow and blew kisses to the audience, they gave him a standing ovation.
“The Big Picture”
“First Day of My Life”
“Going For the Gold”
“Lenders in the Temple”
“Amy in the White Coat”
“At the Bottom of Everything”
“Night at Lake Unknown” (new song)
“Soon You’ll Be Grown” (new song)
“June on the West Coast”
“Map of the World”
“An Attempt to Tip the Scales”
“Waste of Paint”
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