As the sun set in New York City's Central Park last night (July 29), singer-songwriter Conor Oberst was talking about cannibalism and the looming demise of humankind. "This song is about when all the water and oil runs out and we turn into cannibals. It's not that far away," the frontman warned the sizable and enthusiastic crowd before easing into the Bright Eyes track "No One Would Riot For Less."
Despite perhaps the inevitable, monstrous takeover of humankind, Oberst was in full force in the grassy glen in support of his first fully fledged solo album Upside Down Mountain. Though he's largely known for his Bright Eyes vehicle, an "emo" mainstay in the mid-2000s, Oberst is a newly renewed man with a folky and full solo effort, which gets the sonically masterful live treatment with the backing of California rockers Dawes.
A nine-piece band in total, which is also made up of Bright Eyes partner Nate Walcott and sister folk duo Larkin Poe, helped to bring Upside Down Mountain to life, giving new depths of layers and rich harmonies to the music, and reviving old Bright Eyes standards as well.
Oberst and his massive crew kicked things off with the lead three tracks from Mountain, "Time Forgot," "Zigzagging Toward The Light" and "Hundreds Of Ways." Wearing a wide-brimmed, too-large hat and a long black coat, Oberst was perhaps looking like a mysterious, brooding character, but he was full of pep. Spinning in circles with his acoustic guitar and playing battles against Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith, long gone were the days of a sad Oberst, drunken behind a piano bench. This was a well-seasoned leader, ready to take New York by storm.
The 20-song setlist didn't just contain cuts from Upside Down Mountain, of course, with Oberst reliving each part of his expansive discography and musical journey. For the crowd at Central Park, Bright Eyes tracks were a noted favorite, with women soft-shoeing to "Bowl of Oranges" and grown men growing teary with a heartfelt performance of "Poison Oak."
Far and away, the audience favorite was perhaps Bright Eyes' most famous single "Lover I Don't Have To Love." Sitting at a white piano bench, Oberst nearly screamed into the microphone, reliving pains past and present as the audience shouted every word back at him. Near the end of the LIFTED track, Oberst was no longer a slave to the piano bench, standing up and pounding the keys with all his might like an old R&B performer. Everyone was feeling the rhythm.
Between old cuts, Oberst also revitalized Upside Down Mountain, making "Artifact #1," "Desert Island Questionnaire" and "Governor's Ball" feel even more rounded out than they do on record. For the latter song, Oberst went full folk singer, acting out the song's lyrics of a broke and beat up man at a NYC music festival, behind his wooden stringed instrument. It was a performance for sore eyes, as Oberst himself pointed out earlier in the evening.
After an extended Dawes-featuring jam session on the Mystic Valley Band track "I Got The Reason," the time for the standard Oberst set had come and gone. But, as is standard, the band returned.
Giving "Lua" the always-special mandolin and trumpet treatment Oberst captivated the crowd with the simple, drug-fueled melody, capturing those lost feelings of a New York City night that seemed oh-so simple in the moonlight. The pace was picked up again for the final song of the evening -- one can't leave on such a somber note. The jammy Bright Eyes song "Another Travelin' Song" was his choice for a closer, sending folks on their own travels with the folky melody.
Through the ages, Oberst has adapted his own worldview and life to his surroundings, but he goes through the old movements like the pro he is, going off on one special, career-spanning tour.
Check out the full Conor Oberst NYC setlist below:
"Zigzagging Toward the Light"
"Hundreds of Ways"
"We Are Nowhere And It's Now"
"Bowl of Oranges"
"Hit The Switch"
"No One Would Riot For Less"
"Old Soul Song (For The New World Order)"
"Desert Island Questionnaire"
"If The Brakeman Turns My Way"
"Lover I Don't Have To Love"
"I Got The Reason #1"
"Another Travelin' Song"