Conor Oberst at Fitzgerald Theater, 9/20/12

Conor Oberst at Fitzgerald Theater, 9/20/12
Photo by Rob Van Alstyne

Conor Oberst
Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul
Thursday, September 20, 2012

Still a relatively youthful 32 years old, pride of Omaha Conor Oberst has already clocked roughly 14 years as a working musician. During that span he's followed his independent-minded muse fervently, spurning opportunities to cash in big with major labels - back when labels actually had money to shower on indie sensations - and willfully shifting stylistic gears just when it seemed like significant mainstream success was right around the corner.

After spending more than a decade building up the Bright Eyes moniker and gradually growing and polishing his sound, Oberst promptly put the project in mothballs at the end of 2007 to spend four years playing rough-and-tumble country-rock with the Mystic Valley band to significantly smaller audiences, only to revive Bright Eyes in a far different rock-minded form with 2011's excellent The People's Key. Like Neil Young before him, Oberst is dedicated to defining success on his own iconoclastic terms.

See Also:
Bright Eyes and Titus Andronicus at First Avenue, 4/4/11
Desaparecidos at 400 Bar, 8/9/12

Oberst's once shaky wail has deepened and steadied with the passing of time without losing a shred of its distinctive emotiveness. This point was repeatedly driven home throughout the course of his 105-minute long rapturously received performance. With no new record to promote, Oberst cooked up a willfully diverse set list. His 20-song performance stretched across more than a decade worth of releases and encompassed both his best-known work (plenty of tunes from Bright Eyes' 2002 indie smash Lifted) and rarely heard gems (Mystic Valley Band b-side "Breezy") in addition to handful of brand new as yet unreleased tunes.

While on record Oberst frequently dresses up his simple chord progression with plenty of fancy filigree, left to his own devices as unadorned acoustic constructions the modest nature of his fretwork was abundantly clear, with scant fancy fills or complex finger-picked progressions in sight throughout the night. It didn't matter as Oberst's six-string was primarily there to serve as the unobtrusive backdrop for his rightfully lionized lyrics and he deftly employed opening act Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds and sideman Ben Brodin on a rotating array of instruments to keep his sparse instrumental backing lively. The unexpected presence of vibes lent a stately elegance to tunes like "Classic Cars" while acoustic reworkings of more rocking full-band material like "Shell Games" were revelatory thanks to some truly fiery fretwork by Brodin.

While he may have started out as a melodramatic teen setting open-wound diary entries to song, Oberst has mature into a confident and compelling songwriter with a witty self-awareness he displayed throughout the evening in his between song banter. When introducing the nostalgic new song "You Are Your Mom's" he first warned the audience, "This is a little sentimental so I apologize. It might be a good time to go to the bathroom if you have a cold, black heart." Unsurprisingly, no one in the crowd moved an inch.

Critic's bias: Oberst's made his name trafficking in soul-baring folk-rock, but I've always found his music to be at it's most compelling with the amps turned up and synthesizers squiggling, be it with his post-punk band Desaparecidos or on unjustly overlooked Bright Eyes albums like 2005's Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.

The crowd: A combination of well-heeled hipsters and Current fanatics undeterred by the suprisingly steep ticket price ($39-$46 before service charges).

Overheard in the crowd: Lots of random requests for very old songs during between song lulls, most of which had Oberst shaking his head with a rueful smile. Also plenty of whooping and shouting whenever Conor got worked up and howled a bit during early days songs like "At the Bottom of Everything."

Random notebook dump: While Burhenn's opening set failed to grab me, he soulful smoky vocals proved to be the perfect harmonic companion for Oberst.

Set list:
The Big Picture (solo electric guitar)
Arienette (solo electric guitar)
First Day of My Life (solo acoustic)
Common Knowledge (solo acoustic)
Money Lenders in the Temple (with Ben Brodin on vibes)
Classic Cars (with Ben Brodin on vibes, Laura Burhenn on backing vocals)
Amy in the White Coat (with Ben Brodin on vibes, Laura Burhenn on piano)
Cape Canaveral (with Ben Brodin on electric guitar)
At the Bottom of Everything (with Ben Brodin on electric guitar)
Ladder Song (Conor Oberst on piano, Ben Brodin on electric guitar)
Kick (new song solo acoustic)
You Are Your Mom's (new song solo acoustic)
Ten Women (with Ben Brodin on electric slide guitar)
Shell Game (with Ben Brodin on electric guitar)
Map of the World (with Ben Brodin on vibes, Laura Burhenn on backing vocals)
Laura Laurent (with Ben Brodin on vibes, Laura Burhenn on piano)
Breezy (with Conor Oberst on piano, Ben Brodin on electric guitar)

An Attempt to Tip the Scales (with Ben Brodin on electric guitar, Laura Burhenn on piano)
Make War (with Ben Brodin on electric guitar, Laura Burhenn on piano)
Milk Thistle (solo acoustic)

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