After a Friday performance at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Omaha’s Conor Oberst extended his Bay Area weekend with an evening show at The Fillmore on Saturday evening. Admittedly, having not attended Friday’s daytime outdoor show, I report without the preexisting knowledge of how Oberst approached his HSB set. Regardless of what he had already played for the day-drinking Golden Gate Park audience, Saturday night’s setlist certainly felt like a special one.
To say that Conor Oberst’s career has been longwinded would be an understatement. Under the 18 year old moniker Bright Eyes, Oberst churned out an epic 9 studio albums, a handful of EPs, and then officiated the rest of his recordings through collections of b-sides. Then a few years ago, he decided to carry on under his own name and put out three studio albums, sometimes accompanied by the Mystic Valley Band. As Jason mentioned, on this tour Oberst has been reportedly playing tracks from all his projects.
It should be known that I have been following Oberst’s career for about ten years now, having been acutely aware of every exhale of Bright Eyes. With every admirable songwriter that has the power of building up a “cult following” over time, there are the low moments. During parts of Oberst’s career, I lost interest — mainly as he starting shaking off the youthful torment associated with the name Bright Eyes, and work on a more mature persona. He broke out with force, shifting focus from the themes of dark, emotional disturbance and despondent, yet romantic poetry to political opinion, atheism and an overall bohemian redress.
Fast forward to Saturday night’s show, and it seems as if Oberst now splits the difference and ultimately embraces both sides to his artistic imagery. At the Fillmore, his setlist was comprised of reworked songs from various points in his career, so far back as early Bright Eyes records from over a decade ago. It came together in a cohesive, relevant, and folk-inspired manner that allowed for his number one quality as a musician to shine through: his lyrical ability. There wasn’t that overpowering quiver in his voice, or any other stylistic distraction that could take away from Oberst’s on point lyrics. The crowd responded positively, practically yelling each word to Bright Eyes classics like “We Are Free Men” and cheering after noteworthy, politically commenting lines in “No One Would Riot For Less.”
Oberst and his backing band, the show’s supporting Felice Brothers, opened the night with the unreleased track “Common Knowledge” — which lyrically is just as mature and honest as any. Of the many songs that worked fantastically with Felice Brothers’ violinist and accompanying musicians, “Four Winds” was executed with adequate style, as was the soul-searching-yet-still-somehow-romantic “Southern State” (originally released in 2002!).
The second song choice of the evening was a track Oberst recorded with Jenny Lewis for a Katrina Hurricane Benefit compilation put out by Saddle Creek back in 2006, “Napoleon’s Hat,” which is an utterly phenomenal lyrical story of social tragedy and political rejection. The live performance of this song on Saturday with the band was downright breathtaking, and really lended itself to the strengths of these musicians’ energy together onstage. Oberst called it a night with Fevers and Mirrors tracks “An Attempt To Tip The Scales” and “A Song To Pass The Time.”
All in all, in some cases it pays off to come full circle within one’s lengthy discography. Oberst has fully realized how to revisit his lengthy discography in a stylistically new, yet comfortably familiar, way. And yet, despite feeling as if the post-Bright Eyes era has been hit or miss, I again look forward to the future songwriting adventures Oberst embarks on, as long as he maintains his newfound balance of political and emotional.