His music dials into a certain universal sadness, and on his latest record Ruminations, his songs are still packed with allusions to existential dread, Catholic guilt ("The Rain Follows the Plow"), addiction ("Gossamer Thin," "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out") and mental illness ("Counting Sheep"). It's perhaps unsurprising, then, that Oberst's live performances are far from being traditionally fun affairs.
Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield opened Thursday evening's (November 17) show with an immaculate solo set of her achingly honest songs, setting heart-on-sleeve lyrics to lo-fi indie rock and introducing lots of new material, as well as a handful of songs from her first three LPs, to a deservedly larger audience. Accompanied by just her electric guitar, Crutchfield's set was sparse but gorgeous, with American Weekend oldies like "Bathtub" and set closer "I Think I Love You" tugging particularly tightly on heartstrings, covering the theatre with a blanket of beautiful melancholy before Oberst took the stage.
Taking a seat at his piano and strapping a harmonica around his neck, Oberst launched into "Tachycardia," kicking off what would be a performance of Ruminations from start to finish. Recorded while Oberst was holed up in Nebraska recovering from a cyst on his brain, the album's 10 instrumentally bare, lyrically raw songs are some of his finest in years. In a live setting, they were warmed up a bit thanks to MiWi La Lupa on bass and Oberst's awkward but affable stage presence, which shone through as he repeatedly switched between attacking his piano and acoustic guitar with ferocity.
He credited "your boy Neil Young" with the idea of a fishbowl onstage to keep and clean his multiple harmonicas, introduced "Counting Sheep" as a "deranged lullaby" with a warning to young kids (though he did change the controversial "Hope it was slow / Hope it was painful" lyric about a child dying to "Hope it was quick / Hope it was peaceful," for what it's worth), and took a couple of occasions to denounce Donald Trump to rapturous applause.
Taking a brief pause after Ruminations' ender "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out," Oberst returned to the stage with La Lupa in tow to delve into his vast back catalogue. "Lenders in the Temple" started the second set of the evening, but it was the back-to-back-to-back emotional onslaught of covering Leonard Cohen's "Passing Through," bringing Waxahatchee's Crutchfield out to join him for "Lua" and then delivering a spirited rendition of Lifted's "The Big Picture" that marked the high point of the night. A rousing sing-along take on "At the Bottom of Everything" followed, bringing the evening to an unexpectedly joyous close.
Realizing that Oberst's early work still resonates and that his new material remains relatable may be surprising (and perhaps even painful), but it's comforting to know that he's still got great songs in him — and it's moving to watch and hear him deliver them to a crowd of people that feel the same way.