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Conor Oberst w/ Dawes @ The Pabst Theater

May 31, 2014

conor oberst dawes pabst theater 2014 tour upside down mountain
Photo credit: CJ Foeckler
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Conor Oberst didn’t leave the sold-out crowd at the Pabst Theater hanging too long Saturday night. Just three songs into his set he played the first of what would turn out to be a very generous helping of Bright Eyes songs, relieving any fans who were worried the night might be dedicated entirely to his solo albums—which, if they’re honest with themselves, was almost all fans.

Oberst’s albums under his own name are everything that his Bright Eyes records aren’t: humble, even-tempered, modest in their scope and ambitions. On his solo albums, including the just-released Upside Down Mountain, the singer still sounds like the same fragile soul that sang all those Bright Eyes songs, only less so. The nerves aren’t as raw, his vocal tics aren’t as pronounced and the stakes—well, there really aren’t any stakes. Some of this taming is the inevitable result of age. The heightened emotions of youth have faded, and the anger of the Bush administration years has receded into memory, so for the time being, at least, Oberst is writing without a clear muse.

At least his concert Saturday had some sense of purpose. Backed by the rootsy California rock band Dawes, who carried themselves like headliners during their scenery-chewing opening set, Oberst set out to play up the continuity between his solo work and his Bright Eyes songbook, scattering country-leaning Bright Eyes numbers (including quite a few from 2005’s critical breakthrough I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning) alongside their newer, mellower cousins.

At 34, Oberst hasn’t entirely outgrown his air of teenage impudence, and he’s still a compellingly off-key performer, all bad posture and over-enunciation. And with Dawes guitarist Taylor Goldsmith given free rein to color in the songs as he saw fit, they never lacked for punch. The group brought real drama to the Upside Down Mountain highlight “Desert Island Questionnaire,” one of Oberst’s rare new songs where you can hear his vertebrae begin to crack under the weight of the world in an echo of his younger self. The two-hour performance proved that Oberst still carries the intensity and the innate songwriting flair that earned him such a devout following. Now all he needs is some inspiration.