Even though Conor Oberst followed up last year’s meditative, mostly solo album Ruminations with a set of lively full-band takes on the same songs for this year’s Salutations, there was thick cognitive dissonance hanging in the air as Mr. Bright Eyes took the stage at the Greek Theatre to Pink’s “Let’s Get the Party Started.”
He did get the party started; it just took a minute. Following a captivating opening solo set from big-as-a-minute Julien Baker, Conor & co. dove straight into his endlessly rich catalog with “Afterthought.” The slightly disheveled Oberst, harmonica hung round his neck, sang of waking up “still wearing that tie, the one with the skull and crossbones design,” as if keen to blur the line between his prose and autobiography.
Old friends from The Felice Brothers served as Oberst’s backing band, as they have on a number of tours past. James Felice’s accordion flavored the set with an Irish craic, while James Farley’s fiddle added an organic front porch stomp. Oberst himself rotated consistently between piano, acoustic and a cherry red electric guitar.
Two tracks chosen from Upside Down Mountain were especially poignant additions to the set. The breeziness of “Time Forgot” almost obscured the stirring of the existential: “They say everyone has a choice to make, to be loved or to be free.”
During “Artifact #1,” Oberst yearned in real time: “Stood on the banks of the Potomac / we watched the water rushing by / you said we should live in the moment / but then I’d miss you all the time.” Leading into the song’s chorus, intense chord strikes from Conor momentarily interrupted the pensive quietude that otherwise permeated the song.
Interludes such as these provided rather heavy emotional artillery for a Saturday night at an outdoor gig. On record, Oberst’s lyrics are often solemn observations of a dude who sees the world through a sad, cracked lens. Live, he is also capable of distilling life down to bone-crushingly quiet lines, the audience rapt (“Eagle on a Pole,” “Poison Oak”). But then at other times, Conor sets his songs on a steady upward course, towards the end of which, he simply lets ‘em rip.
At crescendos in songs like “Barbary Coast (Later)” or “A Little Uncanny,” violent upstrokes on his guitar that made Oberst look like he was trying to start his lawnmower evolved beautifully into the sudden burst of a figure skater’s pirouette, or a more visceral backwards leap off of the drum kit riser.
Listening to songs from Ruminations and Salutations, it is clear that Oberst is attuned to and fascinated by the world around him. The number of historical people and places referenced in these tracks is staggering: Ronald Reagan, Paul Gauguin, Sylvia Plath, the Badlands, Frank Lloyd Wright, Patty Hearst, John Wayne. The list goes on.
When not singing about America’s proper nouns, however, Conor Oberst heads to the bar. The boozy “Well Whiskey” (notably, a track from his break out 2002 album Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground) arrived about midway through the set, an apt centerpiece that synthesizes quite a bit of what he writes about. Introduced as a “roadhouse song,” it almost stinks of the cheap liquor it champions. Like the timeless “Lua” (performed Saturday with local artist Phoebe Bridgers), or the post-party survey of Salutations track “Overdue,” the fifteen-year-old “Well Whiskey” added a twisted silver lining to the habitual drowning of one’s sorrows: “And just when I got fed up with the grey sky / the sun came out of nowhere like a bar fight / and it knocked out the wind and it bruised me with light / and I felt grateful for living like I feel tonight.”
Conor Oberst Setlist
Too Late to Fixate
Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out
Eagle on a Pole
Barbary Coast (Later)
Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)
Map on the Wall (Monsters of Folk cover)
Lua (with Phoebe Bridgers)
Jack at the Asylum (Felice Brothers cover, with Phoebe Bridgers)
A Little Uncanny
Train Under Water
Julien Baker Setlist
Turn Out the Lights