Over the last decade I’ve seen pretty much every iteration of Conor Oberst‘s live show. Most recently, I caught him with Dawes as his backing band at Metro, which was great except that Dawes also opened and played a set that I thought would never end. Even better was his set with The Felice Brothers behind him in Santa Monica in 2013. He also had the benefit of joining forces with First Aid Kit at that show. Saw him with The Mystic Valley Band before they were called The Mystic Valley Band (Jenny Lewis opened and it was not good, but did not lessen my affection for her music). All these great shows, and still there’s something special about seeing him solo. Just the man and his incredible songs.
Ruminations came out to mixed reviews among my circle of people whose opinions I value. Some loved the rawness of it, some found the reliance on harmonica a bit too on the nose for an artist hailed so often as the “next Dylan.” I find myself in the middle-it’s certainly not my favorite Oberst album, but there’s a lot to like. He includes a lot more pop culture references in his lyrics, leading me to believe he might actually be of this Earth and not just some spirit sent from the beyond to deliver music that speaks to me. Hearing them performed live lent a bit of credibility to the recorded versions as well. One could assume they were just recorded to sound slightly better than demos, but seeing him play piano and sing the words, it comes through as genuine.
The evening consisted of two sets of music: the first, all of Ruminations from front to back. The second, a collection of old Bright Eyes and solo songs from Lifted to Upside Down Mountain. My favorite track from the new album is “A Little Uncanny,” and that was certainly a standout during the concert. The album closer, “Til St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out” also stood above some of the other songs in this setting. “Gossamer Thin,” which is probably my second favorite, played a little slow.
Conor is a born storyteller, so I always look forward to hearing what he has to say in between songs. Last night didn’t disappoint. Halfway through the second set he sat down at the piano and went into a spiel about the election, calling Trump an orange rat. Someone in the crowd shouted “Fuck Trump!,” to which Conor replied “I don’t want to fuck Trump. He’d probably give me orange rat AIDS. Besides he’s already fucked enough 15 year old girls in beauty pageant dressing rooms.” Needless to say, I was thrilled to hear some bile thrown Trump’s way after the news networks have scattered trying to make his bullshit sound like something a normal human being would say or do.
After that little tangent, he talked about how waking up the morning after the election to find out Leonard Cohen had passed made everything even worse. Then he launched in to a great cover of Cohen’s “Passing Through.”
The old songs that made up the second set were a good mix. I thought for sure he would play “Lua” or “First Day Of My Life,” but neither were heard on this night. He did play a fantastic version of “The Big Picture,” which I hadn’t heard in a long time. He dedicated “Cape Canaveral” to the Hubble Telescope, noting that pretty soon “science will be outlawed.” The show ended with “At The Bottom Of Everything,” a pretty fitting song considering the current state of things.
Conor hits LA for a couple shows next month and then he’s spending January in Europe. I can’t be sure, but I’d suspect that he’ll be back in the spring/summer for a bigger run of shows and likely some festivals (fingers crossed for Pitchfork or 80/35!)
You All Loved Him Once
Next Of Kin
The Rain Follows The Plow
A Little Uncanny
Till St Dymphna Kicks Us Out
Lenders In The Temple
Passing Through (Leonard Cohen cover)
The Big Picture
At The Bottom Of Everything