Photo by Cortney Armitage
It was only fitting that Conor Oberst should walk onstage at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn just minutes after the skies had opened up in a downpour over Prospect Park. The intensity and vulnerability that have always been his trademarks are particularly well suited for a rain-soaked New York crowd on a summer night.
Dressed, per usual, in all black, harmonica around his neck and sunglasses on despite the fact the sun had set an hour before, Oberst took command of the evening immediately with the relatively subdued “Barbary Coast (Later),” one of the many highlights off this year’s Salutations. Much of the material for the night drew from that record, including rousing takes on “A Little Uncanny” and “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out,” which all put his chosen backing band, which features members of The Felice Brothers, to spectacular use. Since his early days Oberst has been dogged with Bob Dylan comparisons, ad this tour is certain not to help the matter as the biting, brittle electric guitar and beautiful accordion and violin work distinctly recall Dylan’s time with The Band as well as his Rolling Thunder Revue.
All those hoping to hear some of their favorites from elsewhere in Conor’s catalog, weren’t left disappointed, and while the Bright Eyes songs may have been few and far between, the sing-alongs that accompanied each one, along with older solo staples like “Cape Canaveral,” made it all worthwhile. Introducing “Southern State” Oberst made his first political jab of the night, saying of the South “People talk real nice down there, it’s just all the other stuff that’s rough.” It wasn’t long before he let himself get a little more heated, thought, calling President Trump “a truly worthless human being,” adding, “and I fucking hate his whole family too,” before launching into a truly ferocious performance of “Roosevelt Room,” a song off his Mystic Valley Band’s 2009 album Outer South.
As the night cooled off, the rain and the clouds having cleared out, Conor began his encore by taking a seat at his piano alone and playing a stunner of a new song. “No one’s gonna change, nobody ever does/And I’m never gonna do what you want me to,” he sang, his voice practically dripping with the kind of heartache that drew people to Bright Eyes over a decade ago. The show ended with a slow-building dramatic rendition of Bright Eyes’ “Train Under Water” and the raucous “Napalm,” appropriately burning down the house as Oberst strutted the stage, kneeled at his guitar player’s feet when he interjected with a solo, and spit out fiery lyrics with passion. If it weren’t for the curfew, it wouldn’t have been surprising if they kept things going for another hour or more, but as it stood it was still a night that proved Conor Oberst is the best he’s been in years, and shows no signs of slowing down.