Column 282: The final word on The Concert for Equality (Live review, Pt. 2)…

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at The Concert for Equality, July 31, 2010.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at The Concert for Equality, July 31, 2010.

by Tim McMahan,

Here’s my “official review” of last Saturday’s Concert for Equality that runs in today’s issue of The Reader, presumably with a handful of photos (Pt. 1 ran here Monday). The whole day felt like a small-town street dance, a gathering of a community for what will be remembered as one of the most important indie music concerts in Omaha history. If you missed it, well, you can always relive it on YouTube.

Column 282: Live Review: Concert for Equality

Breaking down another language barrier.

It was supposed to be a protest concert — the Concert for Equality — but it will likely be remembered as a Saddle Creek Records music festival with an underlying, almost subliminal message about the evils of local laws designed to discriminate against immigrants.

A good message, no doubt, but how could it compete with this concert’s line-up? When was the last time that the three crown jewels of Saddle Creek Records played in Omaha in the same week? A decade ago? Ever?

With The Faint playing the previous Saturday at the MAHA Music Festival, and now Bright Eyes and Cursive playing at the Concert for Equality, we were seeing it happen again. Add performances by Desaparecidos and Lullaby for the Working Class, and you’ve turned the clock backwards 10 years, to a time when Omaha music mattered to the nation.

But even that line-up wasn’t enough. The buzz in the crowd all day was that Neil Young was going to drop by for a couple numbers at the $50-per-ticket concert at The Waiting Room following the outdoor show. Yes, Neil Young. Why stop there? Why not Bono or Springsteen or a reunited Led Zeppelin or the ghost of John Lennon? If there ever was a secret special guest lined up, it probably was Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy or another of concert organizer Conor Oberst’s music buddies like M. Ward or Jim James, who had showed up unannounced for the Obama rally at the Civic a few years back. But even those two seemed like a long-shot now that the Fremont anti-immigrant law that got the ball rolling was unlikely to be enacted anytime soon.

For every line of copy and sound bite in the local news that amplified Oberst’s message of both indignation and tolerance, there was a hate-quote from cave-dwellers like NAG (Nebraska Advisory Group) calling Oberst a racist and suggesting that he be deported. The media was bracing for a protest, but if there was one, no one saw it on Maple Street. Word spread that a handful of flag-waving crazies had set up camp near the Walgreens on Radial Highway. They might as well have been in Lincoln.

Nothing was going to stop this concert, anyway. After three warm-up bands — Flowers Forever, Vago and The Envy Corp — Bright Eyes took the stage exactly at 7:15 and played a too short set that included “Bowl of Oranges” and “Road to Joy,” along with new Oberst number, “Coyote Song.” The Bright Eyes line-up was core members Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, along with Clark Baechle on drums and Cursive’s Matt Maginn on bass. Like the MAHA second stage, it was hard to watch their performance while a blinding sun burned just above the lighting rigs, forcing everyone’s left hand in front of their eyes, while their right held a cold tall-boy.

After years of watching a sullen, almost depressed Conor Oberst scowl throughout his concerts, it was a pleasure to see him smiling and energized, as if the crowd of mostly like-minded fans had lifted the weight of the world from his tiny shoulders. He seemed almost… happy.

The sun retreated behind one of Benson’s broken buildings as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings began their set of acoustic finger-picking folk that wound up being a highlight of the day. When Cursive launched into pain-howl ballad “The Martyr” it didn’t matter if any Benson resident had bought a ticket — they heard Tim Kasher screaming in their living rooms. I cannot understate how loud it was — earplug loud from down the street at Benson Grind. Cursive matched the volume with an intensity that was violent, angry, amazing.

And then came Desaparecidos — Landon Hedges, Denver Dalley and the rest of the crew all on stage, all growed up playing the best set of the band’s disjointed history. Watching Desa brought on a wave of both nostalgia and lost opportunity. If ever there was a project that Oberst needed to be part of right now, or for that matter, during the Bush years, it was Desa — the perfect vehicle for his bitter temper tantrums, a rallying cry against cynicism for a disinterested, privileged suburban generation. A pity that the Desa set would only be a one-off.

As would the Lullaby for the Working Class reunion. Ted Stevens and his crew countered a day of anger and noise with an evening of acoustic serenity — soothing, soaring melodies that have aged well over the past decade.

In the end, Neil Young stayed home. There would be no “special guests” at The Waiting Room for the “Deluxe” ticket holders. The “hootenanny” consisted of Welch and Rawlings, joined by members of Bright Eyes followed by more Desaparecidos, and then the finale — everyone joined in on a song by David Dondero with a chorus that ran close to the tune of Bright Eyes’ “Land Locked Blues,” but with the lyrics:

They’re building a new Berlin Wall
From San Diego to Texas, so tall.
Don’t they know that they can’t stop us all?
But they’re building a new Berlin wall.

Oberst did his best to rally the troops behind a sentiment that I’m still not sure any of them clearly understood. I know I didn’t. The message sounded like: We don’t need any borders… at all. Would the suggestion still make sense the next morning, after the sing-along fever-buzz wore off? Oberst and his followers could work to get rid of all the localized, backward-thinking immigration laws that are destined to pop up like kudzu across the country, but they still had a federal crisis to deal with. I wonder if Conor or Dave can figure out a lyric that rhymes with “feasible, sensible national immigration policy.”

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at — 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 © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


  • I wonder if Conor would like it if people who didn’t pay for a ticket to one of his shows were allowed to get in for free. Then, when they are in, he has to pay for them to have food and drinks. Then he has to provide free merch shirts for them. Then he has to give them free cds and access to his music.

    He’ll ride this issue right into the national press on the heels of a new album.

    Comment by washingtonbc — August 4, 2010 @ 11:20 pm

  • @washingtonbc

    Wow, your comment makes little to no sense. Way to show your ignorance. Are you trying to say that illegal immigrants just come into the United States and gobble everything up for free? I forgot that they are the biggest users of Social Security and Medicare! Instead of being ignorant, why not come up with a solution that benefits everyone?


    I remember seeing Bright Eyes at the Haitian Benefit. I took issue with the fact none of the artist talked about the people in Haiti trapped underneath the rubble of their poor infrastructure. Rather they just patted themselves on the back for putting on a show. I can only imagine that it was the case again, where all these artist self-congratulate each other while building little to no awareness of the issue that brought them together.

    Comment by Hamuel — August 5, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

  • Ham,

    there was no ignorance on the band’s side. each band had a piece to say about the matter and there were several speakers between bands addressing the crowd.

    Comment by brendang. — August 5, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

  • “I can only imagine”

    That’s your problem.

    Comment by JOC — August 6, 2010 @ 12:20 am

  • Hey Tim,

    Just read this again after watching the horribly underviewed footage on YouTube of Desa’s set.

    You are really bang-on about the influence they had. I’m so bummed so few others came to recognise it. The one album they made changed my life, socially and politically, just from the sound of the compositions, but of course the lyrical messages as well. If you ever bump into Conor again, please badger him into reforming this group again! It looked like they all had a blast anyway.


    Comment by Mark Coldham — September 16, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

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