If you were in high school anywhere from 2000 to 2008 you may have found Conor Oberst’s music to be of a kindred spirit. The angst ridden ballads of “lovers tied together” or the crushing too-close-for-comfort of “It’s Cool We Can Still Be Friends” may have tore out your heart strings. (Seriously, the latter is gut wrenching after that first bad breakup, future generations beware.) There were also the starkly political songs, “When The President Talks To God” and the entirety of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. For many, Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes project was a companion on the long, treacherous road to molding ones ideas of politics, love, hope, sex, evil and the romance of the tragic.
I was of this ilk. I don’t recommend it, but it is beautiful in the cracked patches where the light creeps in.
It had been a bit of time since I had seen Conor live. I was fortunate to catch him on his last Bright Eyes tour (though none of us speak of that forsaken album The People’s Key. Let it lay somewhere in the bargain bin with all those resold copies of Be Here Now.) I found my way to several of his solo shows with The Mystic Valley Band. His energy never faltered. His snarl was still one of the best in the business. His performance at the Greek Theatre last night assured everyone that not much had changed on that account.
Though I wasn’t as much a fan of Oberst’s newest record, Upside Down Mountain, I found that many tracks translated very well in a live setting. The routing lullaby of “You Are Your Mother’s Child” is a tender folksong on par with his most famous work “First Day Of My Life” (the two are companion tracks if ever there was one.) Other songs like “Time Forgot,” and “Zigzagging Towards The Light” took on a new sonic personality in a live setting. Case in point: Upside Down Mountain requires another listen.
But it was the older songs that got the biggest rise out of the crowd. Throughout his set men and women both were shouting “I love you Conor!” in unabashed admiration for the man that had held their hand through so much. But, when he played “Bowl Of Oranges” the theatre went hoarse from yelling.
Songs from his fantastic Cassadaga record had similar effects. Bulling through “Soul Singer In The Session Band” and “If The Brakeman Turns My Way.” Conor’s live sound could not have been better.
In 2005, when his critical breakthrough I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning was released, there were few political voices as loud as Oberst’s. In the time since the Obama administration took the Oval office; however, Conor has been a bit less political. I have my own theories on this, but last night he made mention of plenty of politics. Saying, “We live in a time now where some redneck cops can drive through a city in a tank. Makes you start to wonder if we should really have all these guns, all these rocket launchers.” He began to retell a story of being in New York City during the 2004 Republican National Convention Protests, “I wrote this next song about that” he said before breaking into “Old Soul Song (For The New World Order).”
All in all, it was a wonderful walk down memory lane that had me choking up constantly. I still wish he had played some songs off of Noise Floor Rarities, but it doesn’t seem like he ever will.
John Prine’s set was interesting to me. I was not familiar with the artist before seeing him. I know he is a legendary figure and that reputation certainly preceded him at this show. But, it was difficult for me to understand the weight of this performance, having not been more learned in his (enormous) discography.
But, Prine is a professional, which is expected from an elder statesman of his caliber. He knows how to engage his audience, always offering an anecdote between songs. Before one song he mentions, “My Grandma used to put sugar on my jello, so of course I followed her everywhere. This next song is about my grandpa though. The songs got a lot of facts, but I wouldn’t call them truths.”
After a particularly somber song in his set he related, “We can find something lighter then that,” he continued, “I wrote that song when I was 19, I guess I was looking for drama.” His show feels like sitting with your grandparents listening to old stories – it’s quint and great. His songs are simple strumming stories that span over generation of Americana.
And it is worth noting that just as many people, were shouting, “I love you John!” as they were yelling for Oberst; maybe even more. At one point in Prine’s set Conor came back out for a duet of “Crazy As A Loon.” That really blew the place up.
It was a wonderful Sunday night at the Greek Theatre that saw two men with extensive and solid back catalogues perform their hearts out.
Words: Ziv Biton
Photography: Ryan Patrick Mulvey