If you were a teen that came of age in the 2000s, you probably grew up with Conor Oberst. Like the friend you didn’t have, Oberst knew exactly what to say and when to say it. Whether or not he meant to take on that role, Oberst haphazardly guided hormonally shipwrecked teens in and out of the storm that was our first heartbreak—and he did it all in such a way that we felt like he was speaking directly to us. It elevated Oberst to god-like status.
Maybe playing Fevers and Mirrors for weeks on end coerced us to move on. It’s for this reason, I’ll assume, that some people now hate Conor Oberst. No longer allowed to wallow in our 15-year-old angst, we have to work, buy groceries and you know … do things. Oberst is still making a living singing those songs that tugged at our young heartstrings. But that isn’t to say the emo golden boy didn’t grow up with the rest of us. Though he was wearing his same 2005 attire Wednesday night at the House of Blues (a brown hoodie and blue jeans) his performance was immersive and lively, hardly a sign of an artist stuck in his past.
Walking speedily onto the stage, Oberst muttered a quick “Ch!” into the mic and then ascended into the first song, the not-yet-released “Common Knowledge,” by himself. There were more die-hards in the house than haters, judging from the shouting, clapping and, yes, fist pumping. The scene changed abruptly when the opening band, The Felice Brothers, joined Oberst onstage for “Napoleon’s Hat,” a cut off the Hurricane Katrina benefit compilation, Lagniappe. Sporting an accordion, fiddle, keyboard and washboard (plus bass, guitar and drums), the folky rock group became a jam band behind the indie-folk star, who threw himself into a 19-song set spanning more than a decade of songs. The keyboardist strapped on an accordion during “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,” from 2005’s I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. When combined with fiddle, the result was cerebral and whimsical, like floating down the river with a personal gondolier.
“Whenever I come to Vegas, I start thinking about the end of the world,” said Oberst, who has a history of bashing Vegas, then added, “I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s also beautiful.” Devilish magenta and purple lighting set the perfect scene for the next song, “No One Would Riot for Less,” from 2007’s Cassadaga, which was followed by the bourbon-soaked tune “Well Whiskey.”
I’m not at the House of Blues often, but Oberst’s set reminded me how good shows there can be. The band was tight, and the sound was rich and warm. And while most of the crowd seemed to be enjoying itself (the floor was at capacity), Oberst came toe to toe with his critics while singing “Southern State.” “Are you who you say you are?” Oberst asked angrily, almost sarcastically. “The fact that we can't tell, makes us like you even more.”
On the last note of deep cut “We Are Free Men,” the drummer broke a stick, and a piece of shrapnel went flying behind him. After an hour, The Felice Brothers sounded as though they had peaked, but Oberst continued to engage the crowd, lowering his mic into the pit during “Laura Laurent,” where it disappeared until the next song. The most recognizable track of the night, “First Day of My Life” left the crowd misty-eyed, but the second half of the set started to drag shortly after. Oberst dedicated “A Song to Pass the Time” to a girl he met in a casino and ended his encore with “Milk Thistle.” Even during the night’s self-indulgences, the Bright Eyes singer continued to repurpose even decade-old songs with a celebratory spin, the music at times verging on Irish-folk.
It’s easy to throw Oberst out with the bathwater or pin him as a has-been, but he continues to challenge criticisms. With sets that are starkly different from what might have been heard during his Lifted days, he embraces and reimagines the past while churning out new, inventive material (remember The People’s Key?) Whether he’s embracing his emo side with pure, angry emotion or upbeat, folksy configurations, his latest Vegas show was indicative of Oberst’s growth as an artist.
“Soul Singer in a Session Band”
“We Are Nowhere and It’s Now”
“No One Would Riot for Less”
“We Are Free Men”
“Lenders in the Temple”
“First Day of My Life”
“Another Travelin’ Song”
“An Attempt to Tip the Scales”
“A Song to Pass the Time”