With Pearl Charles
Granada Theater, Dallas
Friday, Oct. 7, 2016
As Conor Oberst walked back to the stage to begin Friday night’s encore at a packed Granada Theater, he carried with him armfuls of brightly colored beads. “Here, take some! It’s Mardi Gras, bitches!” he yelled as he showered the first several rows of fans with cheap souvenirs. Despite his calendar confusion, it was soon clear that Oberst had a point, although it took little time to figure out where he was heading.
“So, I guess nothing matters and we can do whatever we want now,” he continued to rant, before acknowledging Donald Trump’s crude comments that only hours before had become public. “I mean, what the hell. Is Texas still a swing state? I mean, come on!” he said. “If any of you motherfuckers vote for this orange rat, I swear I will crawl into your house and slit your throat!”
Oberst has never been one to mince his words — always a bit loose with his banter and a bit overeager to rail against perceived injustice. It’s a part of what has made him a key player in the indie rock community and also a part of what has made some music execs and money managers cower from his persona. Take a YouTube gander back to the mid-2000s and The Tonight Show performance of his Bush takedown “When the President Talks to God” for prime evidence.
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Still, Friday’s comments came as a bit of a shock seeing that Oberst spent the better part of the previous 75 minutes fully locked into his music, eagerly leading his band through a barrage of numbers new and old while warmly thanking the crowd for their love and affection. He did get a bit peeved at one particular person up front who apparently shouted out something to rankle Oberst during a between-song guitar tune-up. However, the show carried on and the unruly fan was thought to have retreated to the background, out of site and out of mind. Either way, Oberst clearly had it on his mind to bring the hammer down hard and furious.
Oberst came equipped with a full six-piece arsenal of musicians for this tour. As he freely bounced around the stage, alternating between acoustic and electric guitars and piano, his backing band remained locked in place, providing competent musicianship, but offering little in the way of showcasing or bantering. Most prominently, he’s added a violinist to the mix, and although she added a nice breezy complement to the folky nature of Oberst’s tunes, she seemed to be reaching for something to do during certain numbers. It would have been interesting to watch her accompany Oberst as a duo for a song or two. Of course, that’s not to take away from opening act, Pearl Charles, who absolutely nailed it as Oberst’s vocal foil on the stripped down take of the John Prine classic, “Unwed Fathers.”
The size of the band kept the volume on the higher end of the spectrum, particularly in the earlier part of the set where the shuffling tempos that highlight tracks like “Cassadega” and “Sausalito” were lost among the barrage of instrumentation. This arrangement worked better on Oberst’s angst-ridden tracks. “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” was masterfully run through, taking the form of a rousing and strident protest anthem. Similarly, “Cape Canaveral,” which kicked off the encore, was burnished with patches of vociferous force, with Oberst sneering and clipping his lyrics for maximum force: “You taught me history’s cheap even deep in the cheap seats,” he snarled.
Oberst also has a new album of material out soon. Titled Ruminations, it’s a starkly bare affair, with most tracks featuring a minimum of instrumental fuss or obtrusive production. The contrast between appearing as a solo folk troubadour and a bombastic rocker has been at the forefront of Oberst’s already lengthy public persona, so the new album naturally serves as an opportunity to revisit the quieter side of his oeuvre. A few of these tracks made their way into Friday’s setlist and revealed him to be in a sharp lyrical form reminiscent of his landmark work on his early 2000s opuses Lifted and I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning.
Much has changed in the intervening years, though, and Oberst’s perspective is perhaps even more hardened than it was then. “You All Loved Him Once” not only echoed early Bob Dylan in style (a comment not entirely unfamiliar to Oberst’s critics) but also in theme, as he coolly kissed off his fans in a manner worthy of “Positively 4th Street.” Another new song, the devastating “Next of Kin,” performed seated at the piano, plainly laid bare his attempts at balancing the varied emotions and privileges that accompany a storied career in music: “I met Lou Reed and Patti Smith/I didn’t feel any different/I guess I lost my innocence all too long ago.”