For Matt Whipkey It Was Conor Oberst, Bruce Springsteen, and Wilco
Omaha singer-songwriter Matt Whipkey says it was “a real honor” warming up for Dwight Yoakam at six recent shows in five states.
“For any artist, it is a positive experience sharing a bill with a someone of Dwight’s caliber,” says Whipkey, whose last gig with Yoakam was Aug. 22 at the Britt Pavilion in Jackson, Ore. “He takes the stage with a sense of dedication and purpose every night. His band is feeding off that fire, and the results truly are rock and roll.”
Nebraska publications have written many of the same things about native son Whipkey, lauding him for no-holds-barred rock and roll, energetic live performances, stellar guitar playing and creative songwriting. He was named musical artist of the year in 2013 at the annual Omaha Entertainment & Arts Awards ceremony. His Penny Park: Omaha, NE: Summer 1989 album—which told a story of two teenagers at a now-defunct local amusement park—was hailed as “a masterpiece” by the Lincoln Journal Star and named the best album of 2013 at the awards ceremony.
Besides the Yoakam shows, Whipkey was inspired many years ago by the live performances of various fellow Nebraskans.
“The concerts that influenced me most as a musician actually took place over 1997-1998 in Omaha,” recalls Whipkey. “During my junior and senior years in high school, I had the fortune of organizing a mostly booked open mic night at the long-gone Stage Right Coffee shop on 16th Street. I had been playing guitar since eighth grade and secretly writing songs since my freshman year. The open mic night allowed me a chance to perform a few of these tunes—my first live performances—in between some of the acts with longer sets.
“I sought out some of my favorite Omaha songwriters to headline the evenings. They included Conor Oberst, The Faint, Tim Kasher and The Velvet Argyle. Everybody brought it—pure honesty and heart, and they left the sweat and sometimes blood on stage.
“In the late 1990s in Omaha, the idea of any national attention really was a distant dream. We learned that our greatest asset was our work ethic and a need to bring it to the stage every time, whether the crowd was 10 or 1,000. These are essential lessons for any performer. I am fortunate to have learned them at a young age and still carry them as a personal mission statement.”
Oberst had a “pretty strong” local fanbase—from performing solo and with the band Commander Venus—when he appeared at an open mic show in 1997, says Whipkey, whose most recent album, Underwater, was released in February.
Oberst “was nice enough to agree to do our show and informed me beforehand that he was now going by Bright Eyes and had a new 7-inch to sell.” He was accompanied by a drummer, “and it was fantastic,” Whipkey says.
“Conor was rocking on Ovation acoustic but plugged into an Ampeg Blue Diamond Half Stack in full overdrive mode. To my 16-year-old ears, the tone was abrasively raw in an awesome way. It definitely made an impression seeing someone close to my age deliver these very mature songs with amazing nervous energy. In a smoke-filled coffee shop with probably 50 people, most of the room was transfixed. It was the most important lesson at a young age: to be unafraid of what anyone would think of your art, just get up there, be honest and let it rip.”
Like several other artists who have been interviewed for this column, Whipkey says Bruce Springsteen performed the best concert he ever witnessed.
“When I think of the best concert I have seen, I often come up with a few answers, but the one that always wins out is Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band at the long-gone Kemper Arena in Kansas City, Missouri, on Sept. 24, 2002. This was my first live Boss experience; I was 21 years old and had been a devoted fan since my sophomore year in high school.
“Unfortunately, I had missed a few stops on his 1999-2000 reunion tour, but there was no way I was going to miss this stop on the first leg of The Rising tour. His command of the stage was completely mesmerizing. Though Springsteen shows rely heavily on jubilation, this particular show had an air of sadness. With 9/11 barely a year behind us and The Rising having only been released a few months earlier, the emotion and sadness were truly a communal experience. I will never forget the moment when he asked the sold-out arena for some quiet during “Empty Sky” and “You’re Missing.” The silence was deafening. I have seen Bruce 10 times since then, but my mind always goes back to that first experience.”
Whipkey says the second-best concert he attended was a Wilco show in July 2000 at the Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri.
“I first heard of Wilco in 1996 when our local entertainment columnist wrote a glowing review of Being There. The review was filled with comparisons to R.E.M., one of my favorite bands at the time, and I had to hear this record. After purchasing it, I quickly decided it sounded nothing like R.E.M. and put it back in the collection for a few months. However, I gradually began to listen more and more until Wilco became a full-blown teenage obsession.
“I had missed a few chances to see them on the the Summerteeth tour, so when they rolled into the Blue Note on the Mermaid Avenue Vol. II tour, I was going to be there. My best friend, Nick Neary, and I drove six hours to get there, and we were filled with anticipation. What songs would they do? Would there be new songs? Would they do Uncle Tupelo songs? In those days, access to bands was more limited than now, so we had to use our imagination.
“The show was everything I hoped for: twang, rock, electric, acoustic, singer-songwriter. No one knew it would be one of the last times the band featured its original lineup with Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett. While I have seen Wilco/Jeff Tweedy at least a dozen times over the years, this was undeniably special. Jay Bennett was a pure joy in performance. Stones swagger with gunslinger precision.
“The band appeared to have the time of their lives, and the entire room just felt alive. WIlco was a tad more reckless in those days, and they definitely cemented my love for blurring the musical lines. I will never forget the performance that night of “Remember the Mountain Bed” off Mermaid Avenue Vol. II. While they bashed and crashed gloriously all night long, the subdued, yet fully orchestrated dynamics of this song were simply surreal.”
Photo by Chip Duden.