It’s hard not to think about Conor Oberst in comparison to Neil Young. Like Young, Oberst has moved in wide, musical circles, but at the House of Blues in Boston on Friday, he delivered a rock show for the ages.
Oberst made his name under the earnest and often ingenious musings delivered as Bright Eyes but he has since moved on to perform and/ or record with such widely varied acts as Deseparacidos (his political punk band who will play the Paradise on August 4th), the Mystic Valley Band (whose track, “Danny Callahan,” found it’s way into Friday night’s set), and his collaborative “super group,” Monsters of Folk (Oberst joined by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, M. Ward of She & Him, and his Bright Eyes cohort Mike Moggis).
This is, very obviously, a guy who plays well with others.
So, it should come as no surprise that equipped with a brand new lineup, apparently working the East Coast rounds in advance of a doubleheader in New York that included a Governors Ball set the following day – which the singer acknowledged with a knockout version of his song of the same name from last year’s Upside Down Mountain, – and a Williamsburg gig following that, Oberst and company blasted away at a delighted Boston crowd.
And a truly delighted crowd it was. From early in his Bright Eyes career Oberst has won over fans drawn to his remarkably personalized yet universal yearnings delivered in a plaintive, if often deadpan, delivery. “Enola Gay,” from his most recent solo release, Upside Down Mountain, set what might be called the Oberst edict: “This world’s getting meaner too, so why you got to make it all about you?” The Bright Eyes song that may have answered it was, “Shell Games” when Oberst, on piano, admitted, “I’m still angry with no reason to be.”
If those references paint a dour picture they could not be further from the vivacious 90-minute set that Oberst and his band (playing only their fourth live show together) hammered out. There was joyous introspection on, “If The Brakeman Turns My Way.” There was stomping good timey jive in, “Another Travelin’ Song,” which found Oberst climbing the bass drum. And there was all out rock n’ roll desperation in, “Lover I Don’t Have To Love,” when Oberst plaintively proclaimed, “I want a girl who’s too sad to give a fuck.” Tough to find in this crowd of devotees.
As enthused and enamored as these enthusiasts might be, few seemed prepared for the encore rendition of the Bright Eyes standard, “Lua.”
With Bright Eyes sidekick, Nate Wolcott – whose keyboard contributions throughout the night reminded heartily of Garth Hudson’s essential contributions to the Band – drawing out a simply gorgeous trumpet introduction, the song took on an earthy new persona. Support act/side women/Lovell sisters (Rebecca and Megan, performing as Larkin Poe in the opening slot) took the first verse and brought the song down to a roots level that was exquisite.
But Oberst couldn’t let the evening simply lie down and smilingly pass when the raucous, “I Don’t Want To Die (In The Hospital)” could fight with the staggering punch line plea, “They don’t let you smoke and you can’t get drunk, all there is to watch are these soap opera’s, I don’t want to die in this hospital, you got to take me back outside.”
And therein lies the remarkable connection to the Young mindset. Outside or inside, acoustic or electric, brand new band or familiar friends, Oberst has the remarkable gift of delivering his evocative lyrics and unique melodies in ways that seem both familiar and fresh. Long may he run.