‘No Matter Where I Went, I Meant to Make My Way Back Here”: Conor Oberst Live
While October in the Bay Area usually brings a three-day extravaganza of Conor Oberst shows (which my friend has dubbed Octoberst), this May his fans were given the chance to see him three times in 24 hours. It was definitely one of the best 24 hours of my life. I drove over to Grass Valley for the first of the three shows, to see Oberst play with Phoebe Bridgers and the Felice Brothers. One of the things I love about seeing Oberst play over the years is the musicians he befriends along the way. Oberst mentioned that he was not wanting to play his hit “Lua” (from I’m Wide Awake and It’s Morning, 2005) recently, until he met Bridgers. They sounded fantastic together. The original recording is only Oberst. Often Gillian Welch accompanied him to sing it live. It’s always a joy to see whatever female he’s touring with step in for songs with a prominent female part, or to add harmonies where they are on the recorded version of the song. For years Oberst has been cutely mentioning how the Felice Brothers is his “favorite band”. They have wonderful chemistry with Oberst, and provide rollicking accompaniment to Oberst’s earnest guitar and vocals. My favorite track from Oberst’s latest release, Salutations (March 2017) is “Napalm”. Despite the title conjuring terrifying images, the song itself is a completely exhilarating track to rock out to. Having grown up as a huge Oberst fan for over a decade, it’s so sweet to see Oberst relaxed and in his groove with the Felice Brothers, who often play with him at his October Fillmore San Francisco shows, as well as the free annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. He will still gut you, especially with his most emotional tracks.
Hardcore Oberst fans were overjoyed to hear Bridgers cover a deep cut from the Bright Eyes anthology– “Bad Blood”–from the Bright Eyes 2006 release Noise Floor: Rarities 1998-2005. Her version sounded amazing, as the gorgeous lyrics came flooding back: “Fill your hands with something tangible, and fly your love like a flag/ Destroy the desire for that which is impossible. And accept what you get, with a smile”. Oberst’s first release under his name only (rather than Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band) was Ruminations (October 2016). He holed up in his Omaha house during winter and recorded it after recovering from a benign brain cyst. Salutations is the Felice-Brothers-backed version of Ruminations, plus seven new songs. On the Salutations song “The Rain Follows the Plow”, Oberst sings “No matter where I went, I meant to make my way back here”, which felt very full circle after his 2005 declaration in the song “Train Under Water”–”And if I don’t come back/I mean, if I get sidetracked/ It’s only cause I wanted to”. Although Oberst seems to have a happy married life, his last two albums still offer an emotional journey to old and new fans alike.
Oberst added an Amoeba Music Berkeley in store at the last minute, which he and the Felice Brothers, along with Bridgers, played the afternoon after the Grass Valley show the night before. Thankfully people had not lined up outside his Oakland show (in the next city over), when I high tailed it straight from the record store to the Fox Theater Oakland. With such a cult following, it may be a good thing that Oberst added the performance on the small record store’s stage at the last minute, and it certainly filled up with those who had caught wind of it. It’s sweet of Oberst to still play small free shows like a record in-store at this point in his career, certainly a nod of appreciation to his fans. The Felice Brothers are incredibly talented and darling. Seeing Oberst sing a variety of old Bright Eyes classics, along with lovely Mystic Valley songs and songs from his last two albums is always incredibly emotional. Following a musician like I have with Oberst over the years, means his shows bring friends in from out of town who I’ve made because we were first in line to get the best spot in the general admission dance floor. When you are lucky, friends who you make because they love the same emotional and thoughtful lyricists as you do, makes you feel like you have found your people.
Last October Oberst did not have a third show somewhere close by as he has in years past, so Bay Area fans took this Amoeba show as a make up for the Bay Area’s yearly fix of Oberst. Oberst is great about highlighting talented up-and-coming performers, and it’s no wonder that his opener at the Fox Theater, Julian Baker, has already received critical acclaim since her first solo release Sprained Ankle, in 2005. She’s now twenty one years old, and like Oberst, her lyrics and voice are riveting and emotional. She’s queer, from Memphis and Christian. It’s always a great feeling to actually be enraptured by the opening band, no matter how excited you are for the main act. Fingers crossed that Oberst plays his yearly Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Rooster Stage (the stage is headlined as “Conor Brings Friends”), but until the lineup is officially announced, we will be counting down to his October 7th Fillmore show. His buddy M. Ward will be playing in the area in late October (Santa Cruz and Sonoma at least), so perhaps they will play together again. The two joined Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and Jim James (My Morning Jacket) in the folk “supergroup” Monsters of Folk. After one album release, fans are always hoping MOF will officially reunite one day, as Oberst often plays with James or Mogis, but rarely do they play all together.