A poetic retelling of a wonderful concert: Conor Oberst in Sydney, October 4 2008


Out 11 2008, 11h35

Sat 4 Oct – Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, I Heart Hiroshima

Whilst other kids his age were playing in the park and trading baseball cards, he was stirring up a legacy. He self-released his first full-length album at age 12 on what has evolved today into Saddle Creek Records, one of indie rock’s most respected labels. He had made three more records and taken part in four semi-successful bands, all before his 16th birthday.

It’s clear that Conor Oberst was no ordinary child, and now, over a decade down the track, he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

After riding on the wave of his critically acclaimed outfit Bright Eyes for the past few years (and picking up a horde of finally-someone-who-understands-me angsty teenage fans), he released an album under his own name again this year with new bandmates The Mystic Valley Band, and brought his tight collection of new songs to Australia – his first visit since 2005’s Bright Eyes tour.

Oberst is known for being temperamental at best, having made a name for himself as modern music’s most mopey patriot (take a glance at your wrists after listening to It's Cool, We Can Still Be Friends by Bright Eyes – chances are they were one step ahead of you and slit themselves). Like fellow alt-country musician Ryan Adams, going to a Conor Oberst concert is the equivalent of sticking your arm into a lion’s cage – you could get lucky and find that it’s friendly and quite willing to cooperate, or it could rip you to pieces – and so it was with a closely guarded arm that I ventured to the Enmore Theatre on this particular Saturday night.

The crowd gathered outside the venue was, for the most part, what you’d expect them to be – trendy indie kids wearing flannelette, Ben Folds-esque glasses, tight jeans and apathetic expressions – but there were also older fans, rather content in their everyday casuals. Oberst has, after all, been compared to Bob Dylan time and time again – the type of music that appeals to people from all walks of life through its simple yet powerful poetics.

In front of a room of people sitting down and some eager ones pressed against the barrier, Brisbane’s I Heart Hiroshima were the first to take the stage with their rather generic brand of power-pop. It’s fascinating how much difference etiquette makes to a performance – singer/drummer Susie Patten’s foul mouthed banter stood in stark contrast to the whimsically antique stage on which they were standing. It’s not that IHH are a terrible band – it’s just that they have nothing in common with Oberst, and sharing a stage with him seemed inappropriate. Though it’s always refreshing to watch a band genuinely enjoy themselves onstage, which IHH clearly did, it’s equally refreshing to see musicians hold up a certain level of personal integrity – something that was lacking. It felt a little too much like watching a high school band perform their first backyard show, and the music itself was not inspired enough to save them. They were met with raucous applause, however, so perhaps I’m just getting cynical in my old age.

The cheering when the lights went down was thunderous. Decked out in a tight suit that made him look like a scruffy schoolboy at his first formal, Conor Oberst took to the stage with a bottle of Corona and the words “we’re very happy to be here” (wait, did you just say happy?!) before exploding into Sausalito, the second track from the new record. Live, Oberst’s voice has a ferocity that doesn’t come across recorded – not quite angry, but forceful and honest. The jaunty rhythms and slackjawed country slaps of the new record are sweltering, and the intimacy of the Enmore really brought them home.

A slowed down version of Cape Canaveral was a highlight, really accentuating Oberst’s unique vocal talents. Other than the obvious choices from the new album, the Mystic Valley Band showcased new material too, with Oberst stepping back for the other band members to take lead vocals. It felt like a shared experience, a group of boys all proud of each other’s achievements – and what achievements they are. From the foot-stomping NYC – Gone, Gone to the folk shouts of Get-Well-Cards to the rousing folk-rock of Moab, Oberst showed the crowd a newfound confidence and diversity well beyond his Bright Eyes years.

But whilst Oberst has matured, tunes such as Lenders In The Temple and Milk Thistle hold the same kind of personal anguish that defined his career. Seated with an acoustic guitar and accompanied by bassist Macey Taylor, he sang with an unbridled passion that felt like he undressed, bearing all of his scars for the enraptured audience to see. A heartwrenching rendition of ‘Milk Thistle’ closed the set before the encore, leaving punters with a lingering taste of Conor Oberst’s honest poetry.

It was interesting to note both Oberst’s newfound sense of humour and the complete lack of Bright Eyes material in the set. One particularly eager fan shouted out, during the encore, for the Bright Eyes classic Bowl of Oranges, to which Oberst replied “Bowl of Oranges? Okay, this song is called Bowl of Oranges” – and then grinned, ripping into Corrina, Corrina– “...it’s a remix.” The Dylan comparisons are not unfounded, either – hearing Oberst adopt that uncanny southern drawl for an upbeat rendition of the 1963 folk classic, before playing a note-perfect cover of Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, cemented his place as a 21st century incarnation of some of the musical world’s greatest talents whilst also showing where his roots lie.

It’s clear that the Bright Eyes effect hasn’t faded, though – throughout the set, audience members passed flowers and bags of presents to the stage, an act strangely reminiscent of screaming Backstreet Boys fans, but not unexpected. Bright Eyes was, after all, the soundtrack to broken teenage hearts in the early 2000s – despite his evolution, Oberst remains the Nick Carter of indie, the pretty poster boy for heartbreak.

And true to his original style, Oberst closed the set in a quietly profound manner with Breezy, a bittersweet ode to the late Bright Eyes contributor Sabrina Duim. It was a deeply personal and moving way to conclude what had been an unexpectedly bright and energetic show, showing that there really are two sides to every coin.

Danny Callahan
Central City
Smoke Signals
Cape Canaveral
I Got A Reason #1
Ten Women
I Got A Reason #2
Sun Down
NYC - Gone, Gone
Souled Out!!!
Milk Thistle

Lenders in the Temple
Corinna, Corinna
I Don't Want to Die (In The Hospital)


  • Juansidious

    You are a really good writer. I genuinely enjoyed your journal.

    Out 12 2008, 3h47
  • vanvogue

    I love you're writing. You have a memory that makes me feel like I'm watching a movie when I read it. Thanks for keeping the spirit of the Conor Concert alive in my head. xx van ps- i was one of the people who threw that bag onto stage. sorry for the predictability. & i agree with you about i heart hiroshima, but still i found myself dancing and making a solid oath to go and buy every album i can get my hands on. their hyperness made me appreciate conor's soufulness even more...

    Out 14 2008, 6h38
  • jono87

    You do write well Miss Ellycopter. And you ARE old and you ARE cynical.

    Out 23 2008, 18h34
  • danielisstained

    he didn't play any bright eyes songs? that sucks

    Out 26 2008, 16h55
  • shug94

    nice to read that and feel like I was there.

    Jul 25 2012, 5h36
Ver todos os 5 comentários
Deixe um comentário. Faça login na Last.fm ou cadastre-se agora (é gratuito).