Conor Oberst at First Avenue 6/1/14

Conor Oberst at First Avenue 6/1/14
Photo by Mark N. Kartarik

Conor Oberst
With Dawes
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Sunday, June 1, 2014

34-year-old Conor Oberst no longer writes the sad songs that once served as our youthful, cry-along anthems, but he still manages to rein in sold-out crowds. Such was the case on Sunday night, when Oberst played the first of two shows at First Avenue to the grownup versions of the 13-year-olds who blasted Oberst in their bedrooms after particularly painful preteen breakups.

Age is meant to bring wisdom, which theoretically enables humans to be happier, right? Sure, but unfortunately, contentedness doesn't usually make for great music. Oberst's newfound positivity can't quite generate the same emotional connectivity between the him and his listeners as it used to. His songs have become increasingly distant. He's through with slicing himself open and bleeding on his audience and has instead moved towards instructing listeners on how to clean up their own bloody messes. Still, there's something about seeing your childhood anti-hero in the flesh.

See also:
Slideshow: Conor Oberst and Dawes at First Avenue

Almost 12 years have passed since the release of Oberst's heart-melting masterpiece, I'm Wide Awake It's Morning. Since then, the emotional intensity that characterized his early songwriting endeavors has largely died down. However, Oberst's latest album, Upside Down Mountain, suggests a minor revival of that intensity and meaningfulness. It's still missing the youthful despair, rage, and heartache, but it's a step closer.

Conor Oberst at First Avenue 6/1/14
Conor Oberst at First Avenue 6/1/14
Photo by Mark N. Kartarik

Dawes opened the night with a polished country-inspired indie rock set that conjured images of a church picnic or farmer's market. Their musicianship was phenomenal, but the songs were uninspired and generic. With the exception of a few raucous beer-in-first pumping fans, they left the audience sleepy -- literally. A woman next to me passed out leaning against a pole during one of their ballads.

Singer and guitarist Taylor Goldsmith was masterful at hamming it up for the audience, and at times appeared to be climaxing during guitar solos. By the end of their set, it would have come as no surprise if a mechanical bull appeared in the audience or one of the beer-waving bros stripped off his sweaty T-shirt to whip audience members while screaming about the accomplishments of the right wing. Alas, the set remained excruciatingly tame, save for an uber-fan in the front row who insisted on loudly clapping out of time during quiet songs.

Oberst took the stage at 10 p.m., somehow still managing to look like an emo 20-something, with his T-shirt, black vest, and signature shaggy hair. Dawes served as his backing band for the night, playing an impressive total of three hours during the show. Frankly, they were much better suited as a backing band.

Conor Oberst at First Avenue 6/1/14
Conor Oberst at First Avenue 6/1/14
Photos by Mark N. Kartarik

Oberst played a lively set, complete with interpretive dance moves, foot stomping and spins, but his newer songs couldn't keep the audience captivated. It was clear when he was playing something off his new album -- audience members wandered away, talked amongst themselves, and used the opportunity to check their cell phones. Despite this, Oberst remained engaged and enthusiastic. He used every possible opportunity to address the audience, whether to thank them for listening, explain a song's meaning, or boost our city's self-esteem.


The crowd grew increasingly passive throughout the night, with people gravitating towards stairwells and any available chairs. A number of people near the side of the stage fell asleep, either out of exhaustion, drunkenness, or a combination of the two. It wasn't a boring show, but it was dominantly slow and sleepy -- like a live lullaby session for grownups.

Conor Oberst at First Avenue 6/1/14
Photo by Mark N. Kartarik

Oberst achieved a balance of old and new tunes, playing standards like "We Are Nowhere and It's Now" and "Old Soul Song," in addition to songs off Upside Down Mountain. Before playing a love song off the new album, he announced, "I put out a record, I guess, last week. This is a love song. I'd like to apologize for that." The self-deprecation is what keeps us coming back, Oberst.

The crowd was finally roused at the encore, which Oberst kicked off with "Cape Canaveral," perhaps because he'd taken off his vest and was clearly ready for business. A few of the previously immobile audience members began dancing. People sang along. The pit was awake... sort of. Whatever the case, it was relieving to end the night on a livelier note.

"Conor's a five unless you're a gay fuckin' emo boy."

Rumors about Oberst chilling at the Seville before the show.

"God, I wanna send a Snapchat."

The crowd: A placid sea of white

Notebook dump: It's generally a bad sign when more than one person falls asleep at your show. On a positive note, a man standing outside First Ave. held a lit stick of incense in his mouth, which was pretty sweet.

Time Forgot
Zigzagging Toward the Light
We Are Nowhere and It's Now
Enola Gay
Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)
Hit the Switch
Danny Callahan
Bowl of Oranges
Ladder Song
If The Brakeman Turns My Way
Hundreds of Ways
Haile Selassie
Desert Island Questionnaire
I Got the Reason #2

Cape Canaveral 
Another Travelin' Song
Roosevelt Room

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