Singer/songwriter and former Bright Eyes front man Conor Oberst returned to Iowa City, playing the Englert Theater once again. Fresh off the releases of two new albums, Salutations and Ruminations, he played a classic set of old songs and new. With someone who has as large of a catalog as Conor, that sort of arrangement is expected.
His back-up band was none other than The Felice Brothers, longtime collaborators of his. With a conventional folk-rock band lineup, the band compliments Conor’s unshakable control of the stage and never overpower him. They also opened up the show with a set of their own music, and even though they looked like the didn’t really care, the music was fine and didn’t cross any barriers for opening bands.
Before Conor came on, the crowd got a little bigger and continued to grow through the small delay, caused by a malfunctioning piece of equipment which had to be replaced. By the time he played it was pretty packed, rightfully so for someone of his stature.
He opened with a newer song that quickly transitioned into a Bright Eyes classic from their album Cassadaga called “Four Winds,” which featured the full-length violin solo from the original recording, served up with the same urgency and vitality that comes across on record. I’ve seen Conor a few times and this rendition of the song seemed more unhinged than any other instance. It fit with the sound because he used more electric guitar than acoustic or piano.
One of his latest albums, Ruminations, resonates with its title by being a solemn album featuring low production and small instrumentation: Conor on the guitar or piano with a harmonica slung around his neck. These songs are introspective and the songs surprisingly hold up as an album despite being very local to a certain sound. His most recent album, Salutations, contains 10 full-band fleshed out versions of Ruminations songs plus some brand new ones.
“Gossamer Thin,” a song that exists on both of the albums, was the best performance of one of his new songs. It’s catchy as a solo song and even better expanded, using the Felice Brothers in their fullest extent.
Conor reached back into his own solo career, playing “Time Forgot” before reaching back even further and pulling out a Monsters of Folk song. Monsters of Folk is a super-group band that Conor was in featuring Jim James of My Morning Jacket, M. Ward, and Mike Mogis, a longtime collaborator of Conor’s and a member of Bright Eyes.
It was interesting to see him pull from different points in his life while trying to tie it all together. He played the songs with a practiced certainty but still remained open to the sometimes improvisational nature of his singing. Unlike the Felice Brothers, Conor did not seem bored at all, and responded very well to the large crowd, who continually let him know how much they loved him.
His talking with the crowd was sometimes humorous, asking us at some point “What did you guys do all day? Have barbecues? Write poems?” He even took some time to make a jab at the president, following suit with his anti-Bush songs during that era.
“Poison Oak” and “Train Under Water” were two of the Bright Eyes classics he pulled out, feeling as emotional as they day he wrote them. He was called on for an encore, per usual, and closed out the set with “Napalm” from his latest album.
The most evident part of Conor’s current creative head-space is his seeming attachment to his back-up band. He seemed musically in love and very connected to their music and to their interpretations of his songs. Will these be the people he’s making music with in five years? We’ll see.