Concert Thoughts: Conor Oberst, live at the Space at Westbury

There is no one quite like Conor Oberst. The man has been releasing music since he was thirteen and now, at the age of thirty-four, his musical style has continued to grow and develop, having transformed into something utterly unique and seemingly untouched by modern, popular influence. Never one to be idle, the former Bright Eyes front man, Mystic Valley Band founder, and fourth leg of the Monsters of folk, is on his own once again for the first time since his in-between-albums solo tour last year. His newest album, Upside Down Mountain, was released on May 19th. Luckily for me, I was able to see him perform live just a few days after on May 22nd.

               Before I go into the show, I must confess that Conor Oberst is my favorite, living musician. I think he’s brilliant, so pardon me if I seem hyperbolic during what is to follow.

               The show began around 7:30pm, opening with the Los Angeles-based, folk-rock band Dawes (who would also serve as Conor Oberst’s backing band later in the night). Led by guitarist and singer, Taylor Goldsmith, the band gave an energetic forty-minute performance that got the crowd moving. Affable and clearly enjoying themselves, Dawes set the stage for what was to come.

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               After a quick equipment change and much idle chatter and shuffling, Oberst himself appeared, looking more dapper than I’d expected in a black blazer and white dress shirt. Battling against the wave of cheers that assailed him, Oberst began playing the quiet opening of “Time Forgot,” a song off of the new album. A love song of sorts about lost time and untaken chances, Oberst’s warbling voice sounds as brittle and passionate as ever, evoking a remarkable amount of emotion when coupled with the lyrical content of the song. One of my favorite verses goes: “I’m gonna work for my sanity, give it everything I got/ Though so far I have cheated death, I know someday I’ll get caught/ Just living.” Oberst’s lyrics, as always, offer musings both poetic and thought-provoking on many different levels. While often strange and esoteric, there is always something relatable and deeply human about his thoughts, which somehow manage to be whimsical and real at the same time.

               “Time Forgot” was followed by another song from the new album, “Zigzagging Toward the Light.” A song seemingly about ephemeral, ever-shifting nature of life, this one contains a catchy, altering chorus, crunchy closing guitar solo, and Oberst’s trademark word-painting; scenarios and scenes come and go, feeling odd, yet somehow related by a sort of stream-of-consciousness logic. For example, “True love, it hides like city stars/ Nothing to gaze upon or contemplate/ How near or far/ If it comes, it comes, quite unannounced/ A momentary glance/ Lit up by sun or moon/ Or bonfire/ Or ambulance.”

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               Though Oberst is a songsmith of distinguished talent, his mind is just as sharp between songs, as he proved multiple times during the performance. He said his third song, the Bright Eyes classic, “We are Nowhere and It’s Now,” is about the little moments between the big ones, the ones that matter most that are often ignored or forgotten. Continuing with this theme, he then played his Mystic Valley Band song, “To All the Lights in the Windows,” which he admitted was his most religious song, about the power of faith and charisma. Afterward, he apologized for its length, sarcastically stating that the audience could have updated their statuses a few times already since it began. Following this song was another Bright Eyes tune, “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order),” a crowd favorite that ended with the whole auditorium screaming along with Oberst during its repeated chorus.

               Oberst then played another new song, “Enola Gay,” a fun, charming character sketch of the titular, Enola Gay. One of the things I have always admired about Oberst is his ability to weave unfamiliar words into the fabric of a catchy song, which he does in “Enola Gay,” with the verse, “All around the room, up and down the hall/ Asking for your Sodium Pentothal/ So you can read aloud from your big tell-all/ Anecdotes in platitudes.” The shortest song of the night, Oberst apologized after finishing, saying that perhaps the audience didn’t have enough time to update their status during that one.

               The Bright Eyes song, “Hit the Switch” followed, once again reminding me of Oberst’s versatility. From his more electronic 2005 album, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Oberst’s lyrics are backed by a stomping drumbeat, keyboards, and an echoing electronic guitar, instead of the folky accompaniment of the majority of his catalogue.

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               “Artifact #1,” from the new album, came next. A love song in its purest form, it comments on the influence of a loved-one on someone’s life and the way someone’s world is irrevocably changed and colored by experiences with that person. Though its subject is the all-conquering nature of true love, it remains wistful and melancholy, quiet and heartbreaking in a way that only Conor Oberst can deliver. It ends with the whispered and wishful verse, “I keep looking back for artifacts/ To prove that you were here/ The sound that’s been keeps echoing/ It never disappears.”

               The song, “Danny Callahan,” from Conor Oberst’s first solo album, and another Bright Eyes classic, “Bowl of Oranges” followed, pulling the crowd back from sadness into joy. Oberst then took a moment to dedicate the Bright Eyes song, “Method Acting,” to Daniel Day-Lewis, wherever he was. “Firewall,” from Bright Eyes’ dense and wonderful final 2011 album, The People’s Key, followed, dark and foreboding with its religious language and allusions to mysticism and illusion.

               Oberst played another new song following “Firewall,” titled, “Desert Island Questionnaire.” Appropriately titled, the song focuses on modernity and the loneliness that accompanies it despite our multitude of technological advances. Long and verbose, “Desert Island Questionnaire” is a triumph of songwriting, asking questions with no real answers that demand pondering on a personal level. The existential crisis of modern life is shown in this verse: “Staring at your phone at another party/ Spend a lot on clothes, got a lot of skin to show/ People in the pool like the drowning army/ Smoke along the moats and the hotel lobby glows/ Wish that you can dance but you’ve got no partner/ Keep tapping on your glass because you want to make a toast/ To the ennui of our times/ To the selfishness in everyone you know/ Made a lot of friends, but they can’t be trusted.”

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               After this, Oberst finished out his show with a slew of old favorites including, “Get Well Cards,” which he sardonically told the audience was based on these things made out of paper that you wrote on with chemicals, then you would put them into envelopes and send them away and sometimes you’d have to wait days or weeks to get a response. The popular Bright Eye’s songs, “If the Brakeman Turns My Way,” “Poison Oak,” and “Another Travelin’ Song,” finished out the first set to thunderous, prolonged applause.

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               Oberst reappeared for an encore a few minutes later, having changed into a t-shirt. He thanked everyone profusely, and then went on to play the summery, “Cape Canaveral,” from his first solo album, and then, “Hundreds of Ways,” from his new album. Though perhaps more on the nose than most of his songs, “Hundreds of Ways,” is a thoughtful, pat on the back for anyone having a hard time with life. Upbeat and cheery, it’s a song of encouragement that urges people to push on, reminding them of how incredible it is to be living and having the opportunity to make and discover happiness. Oberst sings, “What a thing to be a witness to the sunshine/ What a dream to just be walking on the ground…Don’t look so forlorn/ Don’t you look so scared/ Don’t get so upset/ This world was never fair/ But there are hundreds of ways/ To get through the days/ There are hundreds of ways/ Now you just find one.” I think this song should make detractors who say that Conor Oberst can only play gloomy songs rethink their simplistic assessment of the singer/songwriter, who, beyond this song on the new album, has shown that he can effectively portray and convey a number of emotions through his music.

               After another gracious show of thanks, Oberst ended with the politically-tinged, Mystic Valley Band song, “Roosevelt Room.” Never one to shy away from his political/ideological views, here Oberst conveys his displeasure with the system singing, “There’s no blankets for the winter/ There’s no oil in the lamp/ And I’d like to write my congressman/ But I can’t afford the stamp/ You want me to pay my taxes/ So you can propagate your lies/ While there’s barefoot dudes down in New Orleans/ Looking like they’re going to die.” Full of biting bits of verse and accompanied by screeching, distorted guitar, “Roosevelt Room,” was a perfect way to end the night and the applause was deafening as he screamed the song’s final, accusatory lines: “What good, what good are you? / With your Seneca plague and your Arlington tomb?/ What good, what good are you?/ With your Cherokee trail and your Roosevelt Room?”

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With ears ringing, I left the Space at Westbury in a euphoric state, happy to have once again experienced the immeasurable talent of my favorite artist. This is the fourth time I have seen Conor Oberst in concert. I saw him twice during the 2011, The People’s Key tour, and once more last year while he was playing with his punk band, Desaparecidos. Those shows were incredible experiences and this one did not disappoint. The venue was nice and its staff was friendly, the crowd was energetic and positive, and Conor Oberst himself was excellent as always. I’ve never seen someone convey as much emotion as he does through his music, especially through so many different genres and styles. I cannot recommend seeing Conor Oberst in concert highly enough. Doing so is an unforgettable experience. And if you have never heard of Conor Oberst, I envy you, because if his music is your thing, then much joy awaits you on your journey if you decide to take the plunge and start listening.

The following was the set list for last night:

  1. Time Forgot
  2. Zigzagging Toward the Light
  3. We are Nowhere and It’s Now
  4. To All the Lights in the Windows
  5. Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)
  6. Enola Gay
  7. Hit the Switch
  8. Artifact #1
  9. Danny Callahan
  10. Bowl of Oranges
  11. Method Acting
  12. Firewall
  13. Desert Island Questionnaire
  14. Get-Well-Cards
  15. Soul Singer in a Session Band
  16. If the Brakeman Turns My Way
  17. Poison Oak
  18. Another Travelin’ Song

Encore:

  1. Cape Canaveral
  2.  Hundreds of Ways
  3. Roosevelt Room
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