For Conor Oberst these days, a live performance is the only way you can truly track him down. He’s never been one to do much press and, since his wunderkind days have long since passed and he has settled into a recording career of solidity and consistency, his albums come and go with relatively little fanfare. That is, compared to when the entire indie-music universe waited with bated breath for the one-two punch of Bright Eyes’ seminal 2005 albums, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
Since then, Oberst has kept busy as a solo artist and with a variety of different collectives, his quivery voice and soul-baring songwriting always a constant. A year ago he dropped Ruminations, a set of lonely, spare recordings, followed by this year’s Salutations, which took the same set of songs and beefed them up with a band. But it’s hard to say how much the folks who settled into the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania knew of any of that.
Immediately, the audience made clear how happy they were to see Oberst playing in the intimate venue. Anybody worried about Oberst’s demeanor or enthusiasm level will be happy to know that not only was he on top of his game and in mischievous spirits, his recent songs possess just as much idiosyncrasy and tossed-off lyrical brilliance as the DIY classics of his early days. The tradeoff being a bit more structural polish replacing some of the old thrilling unruliness.
This Is the New Stuff
Of the 19 songs Oberst performed on Thursday night, eight were from the most recent two albums. He opened with the meditative “Barbary Coast (Later),” a lilting song others might have chosen for a mid-set comedown, but here demanded focused attention as the first thing out of his mouth. He closed about an hour-and-a-half later with another new one, the incendiary “Napalm,” which gave the audience the cathartic burst of energy to send them out the door buzzing.
In between those two extremes, a band consisting of several members of the Felice Brothers and lead guitarist Taylor Hollingsworth expertly served Oberst’s varying moods. A common live show tactic is to elongate songs so that each member of the band has a chance for instrumental showcase moments. When done right, the strategy is fine, but it also can lead to showboating and indulgence.
Oberst’s band brought to the proceedings a kind of subtle undertow, melodic and rhythmic flourishes that complimented rather than overwhelmed. The homier elements, like James Felice’s accordion and Greg Farley’s violin, carried the tuneful load on some of the slower tracks. Bassist Josh Rawson and drummer Billy Lawrence impressively funkified “Artifact #1,” which, in its original form on Oberst’s 2014 album Upside Down Mountain, was more of a dreamy ballad.
But for the most part, the musicians were all about intertwining and unfurling underneath Oberst’s narratives, a tactic made all the more effective by the lovely acoustics at the Kirby. They didn’t have quite enough shambolic grandeur to transcend Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues,” the night’s sole cover on which Oberst got an assist on vocals from Frances Quinlan of the opening act Hop Along. Otherwise they enriched each number with the subtlety and intricacy of their performing, a style expertly contrasted by Oberst’s occasional blasts of frenzied harmonica.
Conor the Entertainer
Which brings us back to the guy on the marquee. Oberst doesn’t so much engage with the crowd as he does occasionally offer patter in their general direction. There’s not a lot of eye contact or “playing to the guy in the back row.” The music is the reason he and we are there, so that’s all right. He did offer up an obligatory anti-Trump rant, to which one would either nod along or shout down depending on political affiliation. (In truth, it seemed a little too premeditatedly connected to the politically-charged “A Little Uncanny,” which ended the main set, to really hit home if you didn’t have a dog in the fight.)
More amusing were his repeated references to coal and the Richard Gere-Diane Lane tearjerker Nights in Rodanthe throughout the night. He apparently watched the movie before coming onstage, while someone must have told him about Wilkes-Barre’s history of being a coal town at some point, even if most of the younger audience wouldn’t have known a mine if they fell into one.
As a performer, however, you never got the feeling Oberst was anything but passionately and intensely connected to the words he was singing, which bestowed upon those words an added potency. He may have shrugged off “Ten Women” as a song about “overcompensation” in the intro, but his vocalizing of the track made it clear how much damage such a tactic can do. And the unreleased piano ballad “No One’s Gonna Change, Nobody Ever Does” contained more than a little early-Bright Eyes wildness.
On that note, it should be mentioned Oberst doesn’t go back too far in his catalog these days. Nothing from Lifted or before, which is a bummer. But on the two occasions he did return to 2005, he made them count. “Train Under Water” soared as the evening’s penultimate track. “Lua,” seemingly as pretty and sad as a song can be in its original incarnation, was somehow rendered sadder and prettier as the accordion and fiddle rode sidecar with the doomed couple in the song.
So if you’re wondering about Oberst or concerned by his relative absence from the public eye, you need not be, at least based on the evidence he displayed in Wilkes-Barre. In the lovely “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch),” he sang about building something “that’s sacred till the end.” Conor Oberst’s catalog is well on its way to being as towering as any of his peers, and the new material is just as sturdy as the old building blocks.
1. Barbary Coast (Later)
2. Cape Canaveral
3. Ten Women
4. Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)
5. Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out
7. Too Late to Fixate
9. Artifact #1
12. A Little Uncanny
13. Nothing’s Gonna Change, No One Ever Does
14. Barstool Blues
15. Train Under Water