In the heart of K-town in Los Angeles rests an old, gothic cathedral. For two nights Conor Oberst enters the halls to sit at the piano and play songs for all in silent attendance. The Sanctuary on Wilshire boasts high, vaulted ceilings, which give way to illuminated chandeliers. The black lanterns flicker in the air, and several pews march to the front where there is a low stage.
Behind the stage there is an ornate layout including a large church organ and high, red velvet chairs. Along the side there are balcony seats equally high as the chandeliers. Colored lights warmly light the scene. The mood is set. Everything about the Sanctuary is mysterious and beautiful, like the music to be heard.
First, Phoebe Bridgers takes the stage for a set. Her voice is smooth and melancholy. In-between songs she humbly jokes, “Here’s another song about murder…” Despite the darker content of her love songs, it would be easy to be completely distracted by the tender, hypnotic tones of her voice.
A brief intermission and all return to their seats. Conor Oberst emerges out of a hidden, wooden door on the stage. His bass player follows, and Oberst takes a seat at the piano. There is a fishbowl-looking setup next to the piano. A mysterious man with a hat sits next to it. It is Oberst’s harmonica tech. There is so much use of harmonica in Oberst’s most recent album, Ruminations, that it is necessary to have some assistance with them.
Oberst plays Ruminations in its entirety, and alternates between piano and acoustic guitar. First up is “Tachycardia”. Upbeat melodies fill the hall, brightly contrasting the darkness of Oberst’s lyrics. The album is truly a collection of rumination. The word rumination is defined as deep thought, or continual thinking about the reasons and effects of a person’s negative experience. As usual it is quite poetic of Oberst to develop such a theme.
The record continues with “Gossamer Thin” and “Barbary Coast (Later)”, which are somber, yet catchy laments. The harmonica punches in at just the right moment of every song, creating a cathartic release of emotional build up from the songs. He takes out the guitar for “Counting Sheep” and “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)” and stands in the center of the stage. The sermon for the evening is an endless page of this poetry, unfolding through the hall in sonic deliverance with lyrics like, “It would take a time machine/ to fulfill all of my fantasies/ ‘Cause a hidden dream can be embarrassing/And the only thing that’s sacred till the end…A rumination in my mind.”
The scroll rolls on to “The Rain Follows the Plow” which delivers a most eerie piano breakdown. It is the most haunting bridge imagined. There are no words, but only a feeling of complete and total loss, and rumination…
The record, and first set are complete with “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out”. Conor says, “For the second set we’re gonna play some old ones.” A round of applause ensues. “I’m sorry if it’s a bit of a Groundhog’s Day for those that were here yesterday.” The sets were very similar, but there were some changes.
There is a brief intermission, and then Oberst returns to the stage to serenade the crowd with “Lenders in the Temple”. Next he plays a tune from his project, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band. He says, “We’ve all had a person in our lives that could just talk you into anything and that’s pretty powerful…and compromising at times. So think about that person in your life while I sing this one…If you want.” He plays “White Shoes”. At the end of every verse he says, “Anything you wanna do/ Lover anything you wanna do.” The transmission of emotion in his songwriting and story-telling is impossibly strong in moments like this.
On the first night in the Sanctuary Oberst plays “Cape Canaveral” and the Bright Eyes song, “We are Nowhere and It’s Now”. Night two brings “Double Life” and then Oberst welcomes Phoebe Bridgers back to the stage. From within a voice whispers, “Lua”, and sure enough Oberst starts playing it. It is quite the gift of the evening. Bridgers voice adds a perfect dimension of warmth to this Bright Eyes tune. The song rings lovely as a duet. As Bridgers leaves the stage Oberst says, “Phoebe Bridgers folks…she’s gonna be world famous one day; I just know it.”
Another Bright Eyes tune is up next and it is “Ladder Song” off of The People’s Key album. It is a stand-alone solo track on the record, which is completely suited to the atmosphere created tonight. Perhaps this song was the start of a trail of rumination, which eventually lead to the recent solo album. Either way the entire audience is transfixed. Throughout the show the crowd is silent and offering their complete attention. Oberst sings, “I know when it’s finally done/This whole life’s a hallucination…”