Conor Oberst @ Central Park SummerStage | 7/29/14
“Polished my shoes, I bought a brand new hat / Moved to a town that time forgot,” declared Conor Oberst in his introduction to the crowd gathered at Central Park’s SummerStage. “Where I don’t have to shave or be approachable / I can just do what I want.”
The lyrics to “Time Forgot,” the first track off of Oberst’s excellent new solo album Upside Down Mountain, illuminate a timely portrait of the singer-songwriter in his current state: an artist distancing himself from his past image and shunning the shackles of expectations. Oberst is only 34, but after cultivating a frenzied poster-boy-of-emo status during the 2000s, he now possesses a wise weariness that befits his latest ‘70s folk-tinged work.
Peeking out from underneath a Dylan-esque wide-brimmed black hat, Oberst stood at center stage alongside his own version of The Band: Dawes. The Los Angeles rockers have been on tour with Oberst all summer as both his backing band and his opening act. Also onstage was a three-piece horn section–including Nate Walcott of Oberst’s previous outfits Bright Eyes and the Mystic Valley Band–and sister duo Larkin Poe, who Oberst referred to as “badasses,” taking charge on the dobro and mandolin.
Performing with a nine-member band is the most generous favor Oberst could ever do for his songs, especially those from Upside Down Mountain. His recent work favors powerfully articulate, philosophical observations over the unhinged, pained style of his past (not that there aren’t tearjerkers on the new album–listen to “You Are Your Mother’s Child” at your own risk). Oberst is allowing instrumentation to complement his writing now more than ever, perhaps to take on some of the outright emotional intensity he’s backed away from lyrically. Earlier this year, Oberst told Rolling Stone: “I don’t relate to a lot of my earlier songs. They were extremely verbose. That might be cathartic when you’re doing it, but it doesn’t necessarily hold up.”
The full-band effect ignited the show in its first three songs, all from Upside Down Mountain, which Oberst drew heavily upon throughout the set. The horns brought vibrancy to the catchy “Hundreds of Ways”–arguably the only danceable Conor Oberst song in existence. “Artifact #1” started off with Oberst singing yearningly behind mandolin strumming before the rest of the band joined in with mighty force that elevated the song far above its studio version. Later in the set, the band turned “Governor’s Ball” and “Desert Island Questionnaire”–both dark meditations on what to do with the time one is given–into pounding cacophonies that suited the tone of the songs as well as Oberst’s affected yelling. Mournful dobro melodies highlighted the much softer “Double Life.”
Seeing Oberst bring his new material to life in Central Park felt like watching an artist undoubtedly at the top of his game. The performance was made even more special by the singer’s obvious love for New York: he has split his time between the Lower East Side and his native Omaha for several years. Oberst called the audience “a sight for sore eyes” and name-dropped the city several times throughout the set. He dedicated the Bright Eyes tune “Old Soul Song” to friends who were arrested while protesting New York’s 2004 Republican National Convention.
Bright Eyes songs did not get neglected in the presence of Oberst’s new material–he pulled out many of them, including some deeper cuts. “Hit the Switch” was dedicated to former Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis, whose new album Oberst praised before telling the crowd that Lewis was in the audience. On a more serious note, he called “No One Would Riot for Less” a song about “when all the oil and clean water runs out and we all become cannibals and kill each other.” (Then he snidely remarked, “It’s not too far off. But at least we have the Internet, so we’ll be the first to know,”–not surprising, given his frequent admissions of hating social media.) The horns and dobro added an appropriately eerie effect, and did the same for the apocalyptic-sounding “Firewall.”
Toward the end of the set, a raucous version of early Bright Eyes’ substances-and-sex-loaded anthem “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” got the crowd headbanging. The song turned into an aggressive jam with Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith wailing on his guitar before returning the audience into the retrospective intensity of “Poison Oak,” which closed with Oberst shouting the chill-inducing line “The sound of loneliness makes me happier.”
“Lua,” a crowd favorite evidenced by the chorus of voices singing along with Oberst, led the encore. The classic Bright Eyes song was so serene that the sounds of crickets in the park blended into its background. Nate Walcott embellished it with a somber but soulful trumpet solo, proving that Oberst’s new songs weren’t the only ones that reaffirmed themselves in the live setting. The full band joined Oberst for the final tune, “Another Travelin’ Song,” which ended up as an upbeat country jam and instilled energy in the departing crowd.
It’s clear that Oberst has resoundingly avoided falling victim to the risky process of artistic reinvention. Maybe this is because he didn’t set out to do anything radical: he hasn’t shied away from putting the brilliance of his poetic ability to use, and only sought to embellish it further by inviting a bevy of musicians to join him on his latest path. A decade past the height of Bright Eyes’ popularity, we’re hearing about the world through the eloquent observational wisdom of an adult–sageness that, if we’re lucky, Oberst will continue to share with us until we all become cannibals.
Setlist for Conor Oberst @ Central Park SummerStage | 7/29/14
Zigzagging Toward the Light
Hundreds of Ways
We Are Nowhere and It’s Now
Bowl of Oranges
Hit the Switch
No One Would Riot for Less
Old Soul Song
Desert Island Questionnaire
If The Brakeman Turns My Way
Lover I Don’t Have to Love
I Got the Reason #2
Another Travelin’ Song