Conor Oberst at Boulder Theater 7/1: Indulgent as a Fourth Gin and Tonic

July 1st saw Conor Oberst’s Salutations tour at Boulder Theater, a set that spanned all ages of Oberst, from his early project Bright Eyes to his most recent solo album Salutations (2017). Known for his tired raconteur-turned-barkeeper vocal style and general self debasement, Oberst has been the recent recipient of criticism and doubt of his merit as an artist. Yet Oberst performed with the musical leverage of any other professional musician; a commanding stage presence and a sound quality nearly parallel to studio level recording. 

  Conor Oberst at Boulder Theater, 1 July 2017. Photo: Jocelyn Rockhold

Conor Oberst at Boulder Theater, 1 July 2017. Photo: Jocelyn Rockhold

Oberst has defined the subculture of emo-indie music since the early aughts. A veteran musician and prolific song-writer, Oberst has carved his own whiskey sodden hovel in the music world and nestled himself cozily into it. Including the beloved, rose colored and honey-sweet I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning, Oberst captained over fourteen albums with Bright Eyes. Since his contributions with Bright Eyes (1998-2011) the man has gone on to create over seven solo and collaborative albums with indie label Sub Pop Records. 

  Conor Oberst at Boulder Theater, 1 July 2017. Photo: Jocelyn Rockhold

Conor Oberst at Boulder Theater, 1 July 2017. Photo: Jocelyn Rockhold

The placelessness and angst Oberst’s work feeds off of has become expectable. With narratives of New York winters warmed by cups of wine in stranger’s apartments, wandering aimlessly through the streets of Mexico, or passing time in a local watering hole, all of his projects are instantly recognizable via Oberst’s tone and visage. But while his lyrics speak of a past life in which our loves were great and our sorrows even greater, his performance at the Boulder Theater was refreshingly present. After a suitably fantastic and heart-wrenching set from Oberst’s long time friend, Tim Kasher, the theater settled in for a look at one of its most raw, burdened heroes.

Oberst’s recent work has refashioned the storied sound of American folk. Oberst has transformed the tradition of twangy, downtrodden and universally relatable country-pop lyricism and crafted his own achingly personal inflictions. The setlist included the first track on Ruminations (2016) “Too Late to Fixate” and “Barbary Coast (Later)”, alongside classics such as “Train Under Water” and “Southern State”. The performance filled the theater with their thickly layered instrumentation, and the band (which included members of The Felice Brothers, session drummer Jim Keltner, Gillian Welch, M. Ward, Jim James and Maria Taylor) had a palpable chemistry, considering their artistic stature, and that they’ve contributed to various Oberst projects. 

Conor Oberst is as indulgent as a fourth gin and tonic, and that is exactly why we love him; sardonic and in the vein of Father John Misty’s addled distaste for all things modern and ‘of the self’ and ‘of the world’. Oberst is a figure we love to love nearly as much as we love to write him off as ‘just a sad-sack guy’, as he embodies all the moody and morose aspects of our most ungrateful, hedonistic and all-around selfish selves. But that is exactly why we’ve loved him, even if ‘it’s complicated.’

  Conor Oberst switching out his guitars at Boulder Theater, 1 July 2017. Photo: Jocelyn Rockhold

Conor Oberst switching out his guitars at Boulder Theater, 1 July 2017. Photo: Jocelyn Rockhold

For all his faults, faces and personas, his contributions are seminal to music history as a whole. Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes and the like are defined by their lyrical vulnerability and the brittle reality of addictions, breakups, and other popular neuroses of the 21st century. Their work is honest, at times ugly, at times downright painful, but always honest. Time shows that people will connect most with unbridled honesty. For that reason, Oberst and Kasher are still standing, living long past the era when I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning or Cursive’s (Kasher) Domestica was nested in your six-disk spinner. In an age where we all curate our identities to the most minute degree, and social media is all smiles everything, one can make the argument that Oberst is still all the more relevant, and his persona is not necessarily a tool to use, but a construction of his artistic bravery. 

His weary intonations and general, unabashed and drunken self-effacement are at times to swallow, dripping all their immoral humors:

“My wife takes a vacation/ One she can't afford/ I go fishin' the alleys/ For someone to escort/ No, I don't mind the money/ It beats betting on sports/ And though it might get expensive/ It's cheaper than divorce.” 

But we’re fucked if we deny that admitting your trespasses isn’t the first step. Now, you may be thinking that Oberst has been at it for a little while too long here, hitting the wall of his own self, continuing the legacy of tortured male artists such as the late poet John Berryman (The Dream Songs). And you’re not wrong either. But for all he is, he is a talented musician, and his performance at the Boulder Theater alongside Tim Kasher (Cursive, The Good Life) and others proved him so. 

  Conor Oberst at Boulder Theater, 1 July 2017. Photo: Jocelyn Rockhold

Conor Oberst at Boulder Theater, 1 July 2017. Photo: Jocelyn Rockhold

The Salutations album and tour was met with much criticism and apprehension from Pitchfork seeing as Salutations 2017 was a short side-step from Ruminations 2016, which consisted of acoustic, solo tracks, and showed a rawer, more intimate side of Oberst. Ruminations, which was well received, stirred the theory that he may soon be shedding the cocoon of his former 2005 self who was defined by “protest song and smack-addled narcolepsy.” Salutations (released a year later) was a somewhat shallow reproduction of Ruminations with a backing band consisting of seven of his best friends and the track-list was shuffled. According to Pitchfork, at least.

But the folk-flagellant Oberst’s recent album Salutations 2017, though a short side-step from Ruminations 2016, for all its criticisms, gives its predecessor a stronger spine. The secondary album (a diptych of sorts) reiterates and strengthens its predecessor. And given that the Ruminations tour was merely half the size of the Salutations tour, Oberst may have merely wanted to give a wider breadth to his listenership. All in all, Oberst still remains a accomplished and capable musician, and a major contributor to the indie-folk subgenre as a whole. 

Author: Kendall Morris, Music Writer at Ultra5280