by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Last night’s performance at Sokol Auditorium was the most relaxed — and happy — version of Conor Oberst I’ve seen on stage.
In his early Bright Eyes days, Conor was a brooding mess, angrily spitting out lines as if he just had a fight with his girlfriend moments before walking out. On top of that, a steady draw of whatever it was he used to keep in the jug next to the drum riser — I assume it was wine — made him edgy and even more belligerent until by the end of the set he was stumbling around like a bitter zombie oblivious to the flock of girls (and shy guys) crying only a few feet in front of him.
The highlight of those early concerts was the inevitable explosion or weird moment — a smashed guitar, storming off stage, a regretful utterance left unexplained — that wrapped the evening with a satisfying bow, leaving the audience content that he “left it all out there.”
But as the years went on, Conor straightened up. The performances — whether as Bright Eyes or one of his other guises — became more professional and straight forward, but often no less brooding. Worse, there were times when he ignored the audience altogether. You got the hits, perfectly played, and maybe a three-song encore along with a “thanks.” It was well done, but boring except for the mid-set political rant used to introduce whatever political-ish song came next.
Rarely did Oberst look as if he was enjoying himself. Oh sure, there was the occasional smile and banter, but it was usually directed to his bandmates, with a nod that said, “We better get back to what we came here for.”
It was different last night. Oberst looked genuinely engaged with his audience. Maybe it was the fact that his backing band was Dawes rather than the usual group of best friends he collects for his tours. Instead of the distraction of amusing his pals, Oberst let the band do its thing while he focused on the crowd… often with a smile. The result was a satisfying night of music, rife with new material and a few Bright Eyes and Mystic Valley staples.
My favorite moment was an inspired version of “I Got the Reason,” a song I didn’t even remember being on the last Mystic Valley album (Outer South). What a gorgeous song that I overlooked, along with the rest of that album. Fueling the energy was Dawes, a masterful four-piece that gave every song heft and soul. The band sounded so much like early Jackson Browne you would have sworn that was David Lindley playing those guitar solos and Craig Doerge tapping out the glowing keyboard fills. The band (along with the setlist) struck a perfect balance between personal ballads and rock anthems.
While there’s little doubt that the collection of talent Oberst draws from locally is top-notch, there might be an advantage to playing with acquaintances rather than soul mates, though you can’t blame him for taking along the folks he grew up with, especially when they’re such a talented crew.
The setlist is online right here. Favorites from the Bright Eyes catalog included “Bowl of Oranges” and “Poison Oak,” one of his more personal early works. Missing among the standards were TV commercial fodder “First Day of My Life” and fan favorite “Lua,” a song that, while one of his all-time best, is beginning to sound adolescent next to his current oeuvre.
Now a happily married man enjoying the next chapter of his career, you have to wonder if Oberst has outgrown songs about late night parties at actor’s west-side lofts. He’s quick to say his songs aren’t autobiographical, but though the characters he sings about may not be him, the sentiment certainly is.
The brooding, angry young man who embodied both his songs — and his stage presence — is fading away, leaving behind a singer/songwriter much more satisfied with his music and his life.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2014 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
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