“It felt like a religious experience.” That’s how I described the last time I saw Conor Oberst perform live. In the summer of 2007, Oberst, fronting his usual band Bright Eyes and welcoming a slew of special guests, did a week of shows at Town Hall in New York City. I found myself sitting in the front row, captivated. That description feels hyperbolic now, but it was truly and sincerely felt at the time. For a certain strain of twenty-somethings who entered adolescence at the turn of the millennium, Oberst did more than just provide the soundtrack to our heartaches. He gave verse and form to our struggle to find meaning and come of age in a world that seemed to be both rapidly shrinking and receding away from us.
And yet beyond those starry-eyed acolytes, Oberst became a polarizing figure for both music diehards and casual fans. Equal parts lionized and dismissed, the pallid, dark-eyed singer has been championed as the next Dylan for his trenchant insights and folky style, and also slammed as a hack who scribbles feeble mawkish laments.
But for those few pitiable individuals who seemed to be untangling the same messy thoughts Oberst tried to unravel in his music, the Bright Eyes frontman sang something approaching beautiful, heart-rending truth, or, at least, truth to that experience. When he bellowed out to the crowd at Town Hall that his next song, “was about the rapture–maybe you’re waiting for it” before breaking into “Four Winds”, it felt like the heavens themselves would shatter as the band broke into the first violin-soaked beat.
There’s a certain protean fire in the standard, adolescent immaturity–a rabid certainty that no one has ever felt exactly what you’re feeling, at least not with the same purity or conviction. At the same time, to be a young adult is to be a fawn taking its first steps, stumbling from one direction to the other, with the utter, fervent faith that each step is the right one. Anyone who might dissuade you or choose a different path is not merely wrong, but a pox on the world, easy to both categorize and dismiss.
Though a devout Bright Eyes-loving resident of the Metroplex at the time, I was not at Fort Worth’s Ridglea Theater in 2004 when Oberst, then twenty-four, told the assembled denizens of the Lone Star State, “I don’t know if you know this, but I hate your fucking state. I’d put a fucking gun to my head before I’d live in your state,” to a bewildered crowd.
The slurred recriminations came in the midst of Oberst’s most overtly political stretch, punctuated with performances of “When the President Talks to God”, a withering indictment of George W. Bush. The audience, reputed to be in the midst of the same sort of idol-worship I later threw myself into at Oberst’s performance in New York City, did not know how to respond to his proclamation. The singer soon followed up his remarks with a reassurance that the fans in attendance were not “normal Texan[s]”, because they were attending a Bright Eyes concert, and not “roping steers and raping Indians.”
Oberst has since backed away from the comments, professing that he “actually love[s] Texas” and that while he “do[es]n’t remember much about that show” he’s “sure [he] said some ridiculous things [at that concert] because [he’s] said many ridiculous things over the years.”
A decade hence, Oberst had no ridiculous statements at his recent show in Dallas. The nearly two-hour performance ended with Oberst blowing kisses to the crowd. After a lout in the audience began bellowing something or other to him about Jesus and Texas, Oberst replied, “I get in trouble when I talk about that stuff in this state,” eliciting laughs and adding, “We’re playing nice tonight. We’re playing nice.”
And he did. Oberst and “his beautiful band” put on a tremendous show in support of his latest solo album, Upside Down Mountain, possibly Oberst’s best release since the 2007 Bright Eyes album Cassadaga. Oberst opened the concert with “Hundreds of Ways” and “Zigzagging Towards the Light”, the two earliest cuts off of the new release, which both evoke a calmer, if no less clever songwriter, with lyrics like “I used to think that time was of the essence/Now I just wish I could get some sleep” and “Oh how the circumstances change/This world is smoke and steam, compromise and metermaids.”
He followed up with “Governor’s Ball”, a tune that’s downright rollicking by the standards of alt-folk. And he also played the two standout tracks from the new album. “Desert Island Questionnaire”, which Oberst cautioned is “just a hypothetical”, is a tune that’s reminiscent of his other wide-ranging, meditative songs like “Landlocked Blues”. And “Common Knowledge”, the final tune on Upside Down Mountain, is a stripped down acoustic guitar song that could be a companion piece to “Lua” or “Lime Tree”.
But what was striking about the show was Oberst’s willingness to dip into his back catalogue and play deeper cuts from his biggest albums. Longtime Bright Eyes fans were pleased to hear songs like the frenetic “The Calendar Hung Itself” from 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors and the softer “Bowl of Oranges” from 2002’s Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. The former was about as hard as the rock got in a nevertheless uptempo show from a performer more known for slow-spun musical yarns, while the latter was a nice throwback to one of Oberst’s first songs to gain mainstream attention.
Oberst also performed “Moab” (a “song about Utah”) “Sausalito” (a “song about running away to California”), and “Danny Callahan” (a song whose origins were left unexplained, but which presumably involve a third state) from his 2006 self-titled album. He otherwise shied away from his solo releases with the Mystic Valley Band.
But some of the most pleasant surprises were less-heralded songs from older Bright Eyes releases, like “Soul Singer in a Session Band”, a song that Oberst described as about “being trapped in a box by circumstance.” Before an unexpected rendition of “If the Brakeman Turns My Way”1, Oberst took an informal poll of the crowd, asking how many people in the audience believed in fate. He seemed pretty taken aback at how few people raised their hands, commenting that Dallas “must have a lot of scientists or something.”
He also performed songs from I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, Oberst’s most seminal work, including the piercing “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” and a simmering rendition of “Old Soul Song (For the New World)”. He opened the encore all alone on stage with “First Day of My Life”, one of his best-known songs. But then he brought out the whole band for a fast-paced cover of John Prine’s “Pretty Good”, and closed out the show with a whirlwind, high-volume finish in “Another Travelin’ Song”.
Through it all, Oberst and his bandmates brought energy and enthusiasm to the show.2 Whether it was whirling around with his guitar like a helicopter in the middle of the stage during a more raucous riff, or pantomiming along to his own lyrics as he sang them, Oberst returned to Dallas ready to perform, and seemed genuinely appreciative of his Texan audience ten years after his more controversial evaluation of the state.
While Oberst’s performance at Town Hall felt rapturous, this one felt like something closer to an ambling and rambling, but no less pleasant family reunion. Oberst has grown, both as a performer and a person, and though I felt like an old man in a crowd with more people closer to the SATs than to IRAs, so too have many of his fans. Oberst was once, and likely still is, best known for his elegiac ballads of lost or broken love. But in the years since he burst into mainstream recognition for his fevered musical fits, Oberst, who married in 2010, has drifted further away from the crossed stars he once railed against, and moved closer to the poignant, poetic ruminations on what it means to be a part of this strange, random world, that were always the backbone of his body of work.
In Oberst’s music, and in his performance, he presents the figure of a man far more at peace that than the one who swigged his way through Fort Worth in 2007. He seemed imbued with the same melancholy concession shared by those twenty-somethings who so admire him–that attempting to change the world might be overreaching; that we may, at best, fruitlessly circle around the infinite mysteries of the world rather than capture and explain them; and that a quiet, happy life may be a greater reward than all the righteous fury and crestfallen despair portended by those screeds and lamentations of adolescence, the subjects of which now feel far beyond our control. In both Upside Down Mountain, and his performance in Dallas, a kinder, if not exactly gentler Oberst evinces the feeling of a man reflecting on how far he’s come.