Conor Oberst and Dawes – SummerStage – July 29, 2014
Going into last night’s Conor Oberst show, I really had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t seen him perform since 2005 at Webster Hall, when he was feverishly touring behind the concurrent releases I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Would last night’s SummerStage crowd be made up of the same sort of screaming diehards who used to fill venues for his shows? Or would it be people who had found out about him later in life, perhaps just fans of his solo career? Turns out, those in attendance, much like the hour-and-a-half set they witnessed, were a refreshing mix of everything.
Backed throughout the night by the terrific opening band, Dawes—and occasionally some auxiliary members—Oberst began the set with “Time Forgot,” the opening track from his newest album, Upside Down Mountain. The song set the tone of much of what was to come, with Oberst strumming the rhythms (often on an acoustic guitar) behind his still sometimes trembling voice while lush melodies were sung and played behind him by the shape-shifting band. Considering the effort some other artists put into separating their solo careers from the bands that made them famous, I was surprised by how much of the set was filled with Bright Eyes songs. Oberst didn’t just play the obvious ones, like “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” either. Early on, the crowd gleefully sang along to “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” and “Hit the Switch,” each from those 2005 releases, and deeper cuts like the cheeky “Bowl of Oranges.” The expanded sound benefitted many of his more folkie songs extremely well, adding bounce to the already bouncy “Danny Callahan” and nearly turning the encore-capping “Another Travelin’ Song” into a soul revival with horns shouting over the tune’s furious pace.
The night’s most poignant moment just might have been the slow-burning country ballad “Poison Oak,” which began with just Oberst and Dawes’s Wylie Gelber and Taylor Goldsmith before it blossomed into a raging full-band sound as the song crested. Throughout all of this, the crowd hung on every moment. Fanatic adoration still pays a big part in the dynamic of Oberst’s performances, with concertgoers shouting at nonsensical moments, or loudly professing their love for the man while loosely mouthing the lyrics. But last night’s show proved that many of his fans have come a long way since the days of Bright Eyes—just as Oberst has. It’s a progression that’s stark when viewed after nine years of missing out, but it’s still just as rewarding to see. —Sean O’Kane