Though just 37, Conor Oberst's career reads like that of a grizzled veteran twice his age. Starting out as a lo-fi bedroom curio, he became an emo pin-up, then "next Dylan" musical genius before finally settling into the role of a well-respected singer-songwriter. This current (and maybe final?) phase has suited the artist well as he follows his muse from project to project, killing off his beloved Bright Eyes nom de plume in the process.
Fittingly, as an opener, Oberst chose an artist who's been similarly saddled with the impossible expectations of being "the next Dylan" (by Ryan Adams, no less). Phoebe Bridgers played a short set of songs from her forthcoming debut LP alongside her "best friend" and guitarist Harrison Whitford. Sporting a Death Angel tee, she wowed those who'd come early with her stunning voice, which belied her quiet demeanour between songs. If she's let any of the praise go to her head, it wasn't on display, and while it takes some gumption to cover the artist you're supporting, her take on "Lime Tree" was a highlight of her set.
Her sparse folks songs dovetailed nicely into Oberst's current ramshackle roots-rock sound. Backed by members of the Felice Brothers, he opened his set with "Afterthought," the first of many tunes from his recent Salutations album, before quickly diving into his work as Bright Eyes with "Four Winds," jamming with violin player Greg Farley.
The night followed a similar pattern, as Oberst offered up recent solo tunes before diving back into his deep catalogue, favouring material that lent itself to the players' Americana influences. While it all fit into a nice theme, such an approach offered a somewhat myopic portrait of Oberst. His aforementioned musical phases amass an eclectic body of work, though many of those wide-ranging sounds were missing on this night.
The singer-guitarist appeared amiable and animated, gesturing fiercely with his hands during many songs. Yet, his chattiness between songs (unsurprisingly, he had some choice words about current U.S. politics) was at odds with the distance he seemed to place between himself and the audience. The band were set unusually far back from the edge of the stage, a gap exaggerated by an artificial barrier between them and the crowd. And he made abundantly clear that he wasn't going to engage with people yelling at him from the crowd when he announced that he "did not give a fuck" what they might have to say. Maybe those idol-worship years left more of a mark than he'd care to let on.
Instead, Oberst reserved the bulk of his enthusiasm for his band, praising their abilities and naming the Felice Brothers as his favourite group. He heaped similar adulation on Bridgers, who he said he hoped would still be friends with him when she gets really famous. Bridgers was brought back out for a run through "Lua" before she and Oberst joined the rest of the band in a version of the Felice Brothers' own "Jack at the Asylum."
A ferocious run through "A Little Uncanny" ended with Oberst knocking over his mic and spinning round in circles, but the encore was more muted; he played a new, unnamed song on piano before leading the crowd in an impromptu sing-along to Lifted deep cut "Laura Laurent." "Napalm" finally ended the evening on a more energetic note.
Ragged and raw as ever, Oberst remains aloof; even when pouring his heart out in song, he feels like a distant figure. Conscious or not, he keeps the audience at arm's length, giving himself to the music instead of his fans.