Currently touring his latest album Salutations, backed by the awesome Felice Brothers, Conor Oberst had the somewhat unfortunate luck to be playing the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, one of the most fun places in the city to see an outdoor summer show, on the same night as Billy Joel played Dodgers Stadium and KIIS FM hosted the Wango Tango Festival an hour outside the city in Carson. For a kid once hailed as the pre-millennial generation’s Bob Dylan, it’s curious to see how in this phase of his career he’s taken on the role of a fringe icon. As I looked around the half-sold amphitheater, I could tell that his most loyal fans had showed up, and they didn’t give a damn about the contemporary top 40 lineup down at the KIIS festival or their parent’s corny nostalgia at Dodgers Stadium. They were here to witness the unassuming brilliance of their favorite indie rock songwriter-prophet.
Soft-spoken indie alt-rocker Julien Baker opened the show, and from the moment she took the stage alone with her Fender Telecaster, I wished the show was at the Fonda or the El Rey, a more intimate classic rock venue. But Baker’s diminutive frame does not for one moment belie her incredible talent as a songwriter and singer. She managed to make a giant cavernous stage feel intimate and drew the small but captive audience in with her powerful voice and unassumingly emotive expression.
The mid-sized crowd swelled with stadium-sized enthusiasm when Oberst and the band took the stage and cut right to the chase, opening with his single A Little Uncanny. With the Felice Brothers orchestrating the perfect classic folk-rock revival sound with violin, accordion, electric bass and keys, and Oberst wailing on the harmonica it was impossible to miss the Dylan comparison, or Oberst’s influence by 60’s-era songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Neil Young.
More than once in between songs Oberst noted that he’d blown too hard into his harmonica and it was wheezing as a result, but it only added to his scruffy, rough-folk charm. Not one for small talk, he kept the chatter to a minimum, pulling out one dynamic song after another, and rocking a sound that could easily have fallen into a hackneyed trap but always maintained that same unique razor’s edge of emotionally raw authenticity that made him a star to begin with.
It was a mature and exhilarating performance, a real display of unpretentious rock-stardom. Oberst brought out indie-folk singer Phoebe Bridgers to duet on a couple of songs, including the Felice Brothers’ gorgeous Life In The Dark. But the highlight of the show was the first encore, where Oberst came out and sat alone at the piano and played a brand new song, the chorus marked by the following lyrics: ‘No one’s gonna change nobody ever does / No one’s gonna change no one is changing for you / No one’s gonna change no one ever does / And I’m never gonna do what you want me to do’. It was a total moment of brilliance. here was the kid-rock prodigy who refused to be hailed as an emo prince and instead broke all the rules of late nineties angst-rock with poetic rambling stream-of-consciousness lyrics and un-sweet raw folk vocals, come full circle as a grown-up, world-weary adult. Flecks of spit shot from his lips as he growled his way through the lyrics and wrenched beauty out of the keys.
The band brought the house down with their final song, Napalm and as the lights came up a buzz of electricity lingered through the house. I only wished more people had been there to see the show, but I knew that everyone who was there was leaving fulfilled.