We all have that band that has saved us from our painful years of growing up and finding out how to make sense of the world, and of ourselves. For many kids born in the 80’s or 90’s, we feel we survived our teen angst largely due to one individual-- Conor Oberst. The Nebraska singer-songwriter released ten full length albums in the past ten years and many more amazing EPs and collaborations, that is certainly the soundtrack to many a twenty and thirty-somethings memories of first love, first drunk meltdown, first genuine anger at American politics. Parents love him, a whole new generation of teens love him, hell the greats like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young sing his praises.
(Conor Oberst at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Oct/5/12. Photo credit: Shauna C. Keddy)
For this review, I’ll take a more personal tone to chronicle just how much “I Believe in Symmetry” (as Oberst sing’s on 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn). Often listeners get sick of what was once their very favorite band, and can only listen for nostalgia’s sake, but might go to a show when the band comes through town just to relive their past obsession. Not this fan. Having just graduated with my B.A., it has been the perfect fall to return to the Bay Area and immerse myself in music. And the beautiful thing about California (well among many beautiful things about the Golden State) is the multiple California shows that a band will book up the Coast. One of the best collaborations among alternative rock musicians of Oberst’s generation is most certainly his work with indie-darling Jenny Lewis, formerly (sobs, yes formerly) of Rilo Kiley. Although Oberst is a midwestern poet of a songwriter, he finds another home among the palm trees and blinding sunlight of Lewis’ turf, L.A. County. Cue Rilo Kiley’s song “I Love L.A.”.
Although Oberst sings on many a Lewis song (a favorite is a cover of the Travelling Willbury’s “Handle With Care”), and vice versa, catching the two at a show together is still a rare gem. Residents of Pomona in L.A. County were treated to a co-headlining show of the two--and to the great happiness of fans at Oberst’s L.A. show the week before--Lewis also made a guest appearance at U.C.L.A’s Royce Hall. With her were the Watson Twins, who sing gorgeous harmonies on tracks from her first solo release Rabbit Fur Coat (2006). As a Bay Area resident, I returned home and was overjoyed to see the two fantastic songwriters perform for free in Golden Gate Park at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Additionally the two had separate night shows in SF that weekend, at classic venues the Great American Music Hall and the Fillmore. Basically, it’s been an ideal fall to be a fan of two of indie-rocks biggest stars.
The past decade has seen a fascinating evolution in the careers of Oberst and Lewis, and these shows really gave fans the opportunity to appreciate the variety of music the two heavyweights have put out through different projects, and the arch of their lyrics as they have both entered their thirties and officially made it through their tumultuous young adult lives. As a fifteen year old just discovering Oberst in 2005, he was receiving rave reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone, the New Yorker and the New York Times, at only twenty five years old. Now watching Oberst perform songs that span Bright Eyes’ sprawling orchestral triumph Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2001), to his supergroup with M. Ward, Mike Mogis and Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) called Monsters of Folk, to more electronic songs from the last Bright Eyes release The People’s Key (2011)-- is certainly an emotional journey. Hearing Lewis and the Watson twins’ soft cooing voices sing harmonies with Oberst on “Lua”(from 2005’s I’m Wide Awake and It’s Morning), particularly on the repeated line “What was simple in the moonlight by the morning never is/It was so simple in the moonlight, so simple in the moonlight”, echoed with Nate Wallcot on trumpet, was a gorgeous moment. Additionally, fans smiled at the old favorite “June on the West Coast” (Letting off the Happiness, 1998) being thrown into the set list of both Southern California shows.
(Oberst and Hollingsworth of the Mystic Valley Band, HSB Oct/5/12, Photo credit: Keddy)
Jenny Lewis is simply irresistible to fans. Everyone has a crush on her, girls want to be her and guys envy the musicians she is rumored to have dated. But most importantly, she is incredibly talented. Most die-hard Jenny fans have loved her since the Rilo Kiley days, her band with Blake Senett. Their break-out album The Execution of All Things (Saddle Creek Records, 2002) was recorded on the same record label as Bright Eyes, out in Omaha Nebraska. A Lewis performance as of late spans her work with boyfriend Jonathan Rice from their album I’m Having Fun Now, as the duo Jenny and Johnny; as well as a few Rilo songs thrown in which always send the crowd going wild. Lewis’ songs capture the fundamental feelings that Oberst has wrestled with all these years.
(Lewis with the Watson Twins, HSB Oct/5/12, Photo credit: Keddy)
They both tap in to existential questions based on life events; be it a simple walk down the street in the morning with “with a coffee and a paper, have my own conversations, with the sidewalk and the pigeons and my window reflection” (Bright Eyes, “Lua”), or finally finding someone who’s willing to stand by you, “Because I’ve got nothing to give you, you see, except everything, everything/ All the good and the bad/ Because I had never met you” (“I Never”, Rilo Kiley). These moments-- some seemingly mundane, some grandiose and life-changing--are explored throughout the diary-like collection of songs released in their careers thus far. It would of course be fantastic to see Lewis perform more of her classics. From the gorgeous “My Slumbering Heart” Rilo Kiley song featuring Jason Boesel’s impressive drumming skills, to their concert favorite “With Arms Outstreched”, there is much reason to hope Lewis will bring out more old classics on her next tour as Oberst did this time around.
As Lewis sings on the title track from her second solo album Acid Tongue, “Being lonely is a habit, like smoking or taking drugs, and I’ve quit them both but man was it rough”, arm in arm with all the musicians who have graced the stage that night. These creative souls so many fans look up to certainly make the music they do because they have a story to tell. Oberst and Lewis both sing of their years of feeling lost, alone, and using drugs and alcohol to cope. But both have survived their twenties and seem to be settling down a bit and loosening up. Oberst’s songs with the Mystic Valley Band (Taylor Hollingsworth, Macey Taylor, Nik Freitas and Nate Wallcott, different than Bright Eyes due to the lack of Mike Mogis) are inspired largely by their time in Mexico, and although he is thankfully staying as political as ever, he also has a much more twangy and chilled out sound and attitude.
It’s not that he’s decided that the world is a wonderful place where good people get what they deserve, it’s that he seems more adjusted to the struggle, with writing songs and enjoying what he can. Lewis has always had a bit of a rowdier persona as opposed to the former stereotype of “emo” and alone Oberst. Whatever fantasies fans construct in their minds about the people behind these confessional lyrics, if lyrics can tell you a thing or two, Lewis also has found more inner peace and stability. She has made quite a career for herself and will continue to be valued as one of the most poignant musicians of her generation, and fans are happy to see her boast that she is Having Fun Now.
These musicians have both continued to explore the peripheries of “conventional” music and feelings, and I look forward to the heartfelt and strange topics and sounds they will cover in songs to come. Writing about them certainly seems like a daunting task to do their talents justice, but suffice it to say that we have lost enough fantastic musical talent: so while we can tenderly hold on to the songs offered to us by musicians who passed too young such as Elliot Smith, I am so deeply grateful that musicians like Oberst and Lewis are still out there sending their sweet soothing sounds to fans across the world. As Lewis belted with Oberst in his love-sick tune “Make War”-- “So hurry up and run/ To the one that you love and blind him with your kindness/ And he’ll make war oh war/On who you were before/ And know all that has spoiled in your heart”. Thank you for claiming all that has spoiled in our hearts Jenny, Conor and friends.