Eric Schackne

Conor Oberst @ UCLA Royce Hall – 9/27/2012

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FILE PHOTO: Conor Oberst and the Mystic Vallery Band perform during the SB 1070 benefit show featuring Rage Against the Machine at the Hollywood Palladium in Hollywood, CA. ( © Paul A. Hebert / www.PaulHebertPhoto.com)

“Education is learning to use the tools which the race has found indispencible.”  This is displayed in a classic literary font above the stage.  Church bells ascend to form the piped crown for that inspiring quote.  Far below, a slew of rock-band instruments stand as a small impression on the simple black stage curtains and stage.  Grand piano; check.  Eager emo kids and relaxed folk rockers pile into Royce Hall, a (pristine)seated venue on the UCLA campus.  There’s excitement in the air, and it’s for Conor Oberst, the inspired poet and singer behind Bright Eyes.  His first step onto stage encourages an eruption of applause.  He picks up an electric guitar and proceeds to deliver a couple hours of unabashedly wordy folk songs with the help of some stellar musicians.

Conor opens the set with “The Big Picture” and “First Day Of My Life,” and I’m amazed by his voice.  He has this Bob Dylan-esque pitchy-ness where he never hits a note dead on, but consistently wavers through the melodies.  He’s sitting with a stillness on his chair that solidifies this character, and it surprisingly goes unjudged.  “Thank you so much, thanks for coming out,” he says to the crowd.

With the paradox, “he’s my friend, but he’s no friend to me,” he begins to deliver a new addition to his catalog of songs.  A quick fumble and he clears his throat, casually starting it over from the beginning.  There’s a romanticism about the fact that he’s just one guy sitting on a chair playing some music for a few hundred wide-eared listeners.  A la Leonard Cohen, Conor Oberst is much more of a voice than a singer, and the length of his songs instills a spoken-word feeling for the evening so far.

Bringing on one of his many eventual guest musicians, we meet Ben Bodeen, a multi-instrumentalist who’s strongest energy in my opinion is with a percussion instrument called the vibraphone.  With a four-mallet technique, he’s moving between chords and melodies, playing one to four notes at the same time.  Among his following guests are Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins who provide this doo-wop girls section, swaying, dancing and singing in unison.  The subsequent invitation to another multi-instrumentalist, Nate Walcott, would provide Conor – and friends – with breathtaking trumpet and piano work.  Let’s not forget that Ben is still wailing on those vibes, because he is still over there holding it down.

To be honest, I’m a Bright Eyes appreciator, but I haven’t put too much time into Conor’s tunes.  Though, seeing him live definitely triggered my curiosity for what he’s working on.  I must say, the overall vibe from this show was legit, and I felt like I was seeing a legend with the combination of the venue, crowd and set. This is a guy that can mess up on stage and the audience cheers for him; there’s something to that.

On a contradictory note, I thought the audience was an odd brand of supportive.  They cheered for 98% of the music within the first few seconds, though virtually no one sang along.  Three times people started to clap along to the tune and it disintegrated within moments.  Nobody really clapped after solos.  Specifically, Nate Walcott’s solo during “Map Of The World” nearly brought me to tears with his phrasing and note choices.  Upon finishing his solo, I started clapping.  No one else clapped.  I let out three to five lonely claps beore I stopped in awe of the introverted audience.  That may not have been their fault completely, as security was really strict with regards to photo and video.  They would run down the isle to stop someone from photographing with or without flash, and phone video as well.  I’m a pretty dangerous guy for getting the few photos I managed to sneak.

Save for a handful of “thanks,” Oberst barely spoke to the audience in his 1.5+ hour performance. When he did decide to speak or acknowledge one of the many exclamations from show attendees he would break into something lofty and poetic; “The first rule is there are no rules. That is my philosophy.”

The four-song encore was well-deserved but obviously expected.  Immediately after the end of “Lua,” featuring Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins again, roadies and guitar techs open the piano and tune all of the guitars on stage.  The encore was underwhelming for me.  I may have enjoyed a song or two to cap it off, but more than that seems a little excessive for an encore.  Closing out with “Lime Tree,” proclaiming poetry like “…make me pure,” it is done.  As fans scamper on stage to grab set lists and guitar picks, the rest of the crowd as subdued as when they arrived file out and back to the world.

SET LIST: Big Picture | First Day of My Life | New song | Cape canaveral |Lenders in the temple | Classic cars w/jeny lewis & the Watson Twins) | Make A Plan To Love Me (w/Jenny Lewis @ the Watson Twins) | Ladder Song | At the Bottom Of Everything | New song | New song | Shell Games | Southern Stage | Map Of The World | Lua (W/Jenny Lewis @ the Watson Twins) | Breezy | An Attempt To Tip the Sclaes | Make Ware (w/Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins) | Lime Tree (w/Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins)

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