With the break-up of Bright Eyes in 2011, Conor Oberst has been living his post-script now for 6 years. That’s two years longer than Led Zeppelin had been dissolved when I first heard them.
Of course — anyone who was anyone in 1984 knew who Robert Plant was, and middle school kids today haven’t the first idea who Conor is. To be fair, Bright Eyes was never Zeppelin. But in the heyday of the turn of a millennium, it felt to me like everyone a decade younger than I was obsessed with them. I remember a roommate after a particularly bad break-up shut in her room for weeks with “Land Locked Blues” on unending repeat. After day five I was tempted to shut the power off to gain respite, but decided to instead pick up a set of ear plugs to let her heal in her own way.
These days I’m hard pressed to find but so many who will even admit to having ever liked him. The stain of shame around those formerly in love with the Emo or Shoegaze, I suppose. A casualty of the new landscape, where irony steamrolls more honest emotion.
. . .
There is a girl here at the show. A very pretty woman. She’s stationed herself at one of the support columns that holds the roof up. That this show is filled with all manner of beautiful women is sort of a given, but Oberst has never lacked that element of fanbase.
This woman in particular seems gripped deeply by sadness. So much so that it reaches out at me as I passed. I sense the depth of her hurt from a distance. It startles me into noticing my surroundings, a thing I’m never particularly good at — until I suss its source. Out of concern, I almost ask her if she’s okay, but then common sense and a desire not to come off as a creep shakes out of the notion. And honestly, she has very likely earned the right to endure her pain on her own. To a right for privacy at a show where the main attraction has built his name upon the foundation of pain like hers. And so I walk on.
. . .
I’ve been listening to Bright Eyes for days leading up to this show. Images of a man-child version of Oberst danced across the screen throughout my research. I find myself a bit shocked by the age he’s picked up since his marquee days, but none of us are what we were, I suppose. He’s matured, musically and within his own skin. The comparison to Zeppelin is of course, silly. He was never Robert Plant.
More apt would be a reference to Nick Drake, or Bonnie Prince Billy. Or, of course, a youngish Dylan. In concert these days, this man exerts the power of surviving wisdom. “I have lived through this, and you can too.” It’s a comforting message. His band is well worn and settled in. This music is a comfort to those of us who have made it past the fire, to this, the other side. And if there are still pits and sinkholes on the path ahead? Conor gives assurance that we know how to navigate those ills. His people are good, decent folk. Attending his show you feel as through you are in the company of well loved fellow travelers. You find yourself pleased to be counted among such numbers.
. . .
A new tour generally signals a new album. In Oberst’s case it’s titled Salutations. On the heels of last years Ruminations, wherein he explored a recently harrowing chapter of his life, this new record feels as a calm after the storm. While it’s mostly the same songs from the previous record, here Conor decides to bring along a full band. It’s an interesting decision, that’s not apt to win him any new fans — but the stalwarts seem to love him for it. And at this point they’re the ones who matter most. If you’ve never listened to this music? This record is not a bad entry point. I say give it a spin and from there you can reach back to Bright Eyes for the full on depression salve. Buy it here if you’re so inclined.
. . .
Big Thief opened the concert. From out of Brooklyn, they released a first album last year to strong critical acclaim. The songs are beautifully heartfelt, presented in a nearly frail, awkward manner that I found endearing. In some ways, they feel like a band you’ve known for years. In others, they come across as a brave indie band finding their feet in a strange new world. I definitely recommend checking ’em out.
. . .
I look for that woman on my way to the exit, to no avail. Wherever she lands? I hope some measure of peace awaits her as a result of Conor’s magic, tonight.
This is, of course, why we go to these things in the first place.
This is, of course, why music matters at all.
All photography by Jeff Hewitt. Limited edition fine art prints are available for order. Visit jeff-hewitt.com to for more info.