Last night, in honor of his recent record release, singer/songwriter Conor Oberst took the stage at Rough Trade in Brooklyn. The show had only been advertised for a month or so, and rather allusively: CONOR OBERST W/ SPECIAL GUESTS DAWES, 21+, $20 TICKETS AT THE DOOR. For Conor Oberst fans, this seemed too good to be true. In just a couple of months, Conor will be taking the Central Park Summerstage at Rumsey Playfield, and tickets for that show are going upwards of 50$. Rough Trade in Brooklyn is a new venue, not even a year into its inception. It’s small, intimate, and only a handful of shows have been held there compared to its sister venues such as Music Hall of Williamsburg, or The Bowery Ballroom. But now, after attending Conor’s show last night, I know that Rough Trade was the perfect setting for what turned out to be a surreal music experience.
I arrived at the venue around 7:10, knowing that the doors were set to open at 8, with the show starting at 9. When I got there, the line was already wrapped around the side of the building, a line that ran from N. 9th street around to Kent Ave. I didn’t know if I would be guaranteed entry with around 100 people already in front of me, but I took my place in line and stood waiting for 45 minutes before the line started moving. When I reached the Rough Trade doors it was 8:30. Three people were ahead of me, and as I looked for my ID I saw a black Escalade pull up and park on our side of the street. I watched as four people climbed out, the last of them being Conor Oberst, wearing a camoflauge raincoat zipped up all the way. He made his way to the back door without a word, and without anyone noticing. My jaw was still dropped as the bouncer stamped my wrist and said have a good night.
Conor Oberst has been writing and performing since he was a teenager growing up in Omaha, Nebraska. He has been the core member of the indie folk rock group Bright Eyes, as well as the grunge rock band Desaparecidos, amongst other artistic ventures. This year, he released his third solo album, Upside Down Mountain. The album echoes the spirited folk rock tone of his past solo albums, but with many slow and reflective moments that tell us Conor has gotten older—maybe not wiser—but certainly better. As always, the album is lyrically astounding. Conor translates to us his specific experiences and visions of the world in a way that forces us to share it with him. Upside Down Mountain is Conor’s next chapter in his career, and last night at Rough Trade, everyone in the audience was reading it with him.
The show started promptly at 9PM, with Los Angeles based folk band Dawes taking the stage. Dawes played a lively 40 minute set, their sound vaguely drawing upon The Eagles and the Laurel Canyon Sound. Dawes returned 15 minutes after their set, but this time as Conor’s band. And from the very first song, it seemed as if they had been playing together for years. Conor played for around an hour and twenty minutes, beginning at exactly 10:03. The bulk of his set was from Upside Down Mountain, with a few other songs taken from both Bright Eyes and earlier Conor Oberst solo albums. Even though the audience wasn’t as familiar with the songs from Upside Down Mountain, Conor’s conviction was enough to get us dancing and shouting along with him. Many people wouldn’t expect to be jumping up and down and yelling at a Conor Oberst concert because he’s widely known as a timid, sensitive, indie rock songwriter who relies on a quiet, acoustic style. But this show was all but quiet.
From his past repertoire, Conor played Bright Eyes songs “We are Nowhere and It’s Now”, “Hit the Switch”, and “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)”, all which had him yelling into his mic and spinning away from the front of the stage to join lead guitarist Taylor
Thomas Goldsmith in an energetic union. There were many dazzling moments during the show, when Conor and the audience gelled and kept the buzz going together. When Conor played his new song titled “Desert Island Questionnaire”, he had a preacher’s energy while spitting out each verse. During the throwback to his first solo album with the song “Cape Canaveral”, the venue became calm as morning, with a single solo base drum filling the air as Conor paced back and force on stage. Any time I was able to take my eyes off stage and look around me I could see that everyone else was in the same trance I was. It had been said to me before that Conor Oberst was sort of a mythical creature when it came to indie rock, that his presence feels out of this world and is completely inconceivable unless you experience it for yourself. Now I know this to be true.
The Conor Oberst Setlist was as follows:
Though he may decide to play a mix that resembles this set at his Central Park show, I think that there will still be plenty of surprises for his Summerstage set. Conor is known to follow his own intuition, even if it means going against a rehearsed set list, or playing completely on his own for a song or two. All I know is that I was wholly unprepared for the show at Rough Trade, for how well he meshed with Dawes, and for how Conor captivated everyone in the audience. When watching him you didn’t feel as if he was singing a song, instead it was as if he was trying to convey something he’s known for awhile, something he really needed to get off his chest. And it was incredible to witness. To think that I almost gave up on the long line outside the venue is inconceivable. The lesssons learned? Conor said it himself, Rough Trade is a dinosaur of sorts, an establishment that maintains the integrity that is often forfeited in the industry. $20 at the door, first come first serve, and enjoy the show. And Conor Oberst is a dinosaur himself, a musician who lyrically outperforms most artists in the industry, and who gives a live show that leaves you feeling alive, and brand new. Here at TickPick we’re looking for reasons to be excited about music. Rough Trade and Conor Oberst have achieved just that.
Tickets for Conor Oberst at Central Park Summerstage are still available, but we think that these will be going soon, especially following these last few shows that Conor has played. Upside Down Mountain is out now, and if you have a record player, we suggest getting it on vinyl. It’s just that good.