Words by Lauren Gill
The first time I saw Conor Oberst, I was 14 years old. Under the Bright Eyes moniker, he was performing on the Vote for Change tour, opening up for R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t really know what to expect from him that night, but I walked away in pure awe of the then 24 year-old Oberst. 8 years and 12 shows later, I left New York’s iconic Carnegie Hall with the same hypothetical jaw-dropping, ‘that was brilliant’- type feeling I had felt back when I was a teenager. Performing for a sold-out Thanksgiving Eve crowd, Oberst delivered a Bright Eyes-heavy set, but also managed to slip in some Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk, and even new solo material. No matter what he decided to play though, the songwriter proved song after song that Carnegie Hall was right where he belonged.
Taking the stage in a crisp suit and tie, the Omaha native wasted no time, taking his center stage seat (where he would remain for most of the night) and going right into Lifted‘s ‘The Big Picture’. I’d never heard Oberst perform it live before, and he certainly did not disappoint. The crowd met the end of the verses with thunderous applause of approval, most enthusiastically after Oberst’s signature shaky voice crooned, “It’s cool if you keep quiet, but I like singing”.
To my delight, the 32 year-old Oberst didn’t just stick with his current catalogue, performing two new acoustic songs. Rumored to be named ‘Common Knowledge’ and ‘You Are Your Mother’s Child’, respectively, they showcased the songwriter’s gift for storytelling. I’m pretty sure I saw some mouths drop after Oberst sang “Or just go out with a bang like Hemingway”. With lines like that, its not too hard to understand why his songwriting ability is often hailed as something a little more than special.
What would Thanksgiving Eve be without some friends though? Oberst welcomed Rachel Cox of Oakley Hall as well as a few Felice Brothers, and even Bright Eyes’ Nate Walcott to the stage to join him. Walcott shined on ‘Landlocked Blues’, taking a seat behind the piano and then coming in for his glorious trumpet solos, while Cox added her smooth vocals to a number of tracks.
Oberst also took a seat behind the piano, playing the keys on ‘Ladder Song’ and the Mystic Valley Band’s ‘Breezy’. These were two of the most haunting moments of the night – which is saying a lot at a Conor Oberst show.
The songwriter seemed to recognize the enormity of the evening, joking with the crowd “It’s really nice to play a venue where you can just kick back and relax”.
To be expected, Oberst brought up Thanksgiving and “That bitch Sandy”. In a sentimental moment, he told the audience that he was thankful for “the friends and family that make life worth living”. I’ve heard my fair share of Oberst banter over the years, and this was by far the most down to earth I’ve heard him. Maybe this was just part of growing out of the next Bob Dylan- wunderkind stigma that had followed him around all of these years.
Oberst, Cox, and Walcott began the show’s encore with a stunning version of ‘Lua’. But, by the time the next song was over, it was just a distant memory. ‘Make War’ was one of the most magical moments of the night. Oberst welcomed everyone back out to the stage for one of those sing-a-long, jam sesh moments that, as you could imagine, was magnified ten-fold by the sheer fact that this was all happening in Carnegie Hall. Oberst had no problem at all commanding the stage on his own, but the added instrumentation made this song one to remember.
Wrapping up the night with Lifted‘s ‘Waste of Paint’, a triumphant piece of storytelling, Oberst then took a final bow and left the stage to a standing ovation. There was certainly no standing ovation back when I saw him for the first time in 2004. In fact, I’m pretty sure the arena was more than half empty.
I could get all sentimental and talk about how far Oberst has come since then (and he has come very far) or I could talk about how far he has yet to go. However, I’m going to forgo those options and just say this: I’ve gone through a lot of musical phases since I was 14 (and I’ll admit some of them were just downright horrible) but there’s a reason why Conor Oberst has remained near and dear. If you’re wondering what this reason is, just look at what he did at Carnegie Hall.
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