Conor Oberst At Carnegie Hall, Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016, Reviewed
I haven’t written a kind word about Conor Oberst since 2012. I swear, I feel like a spurned lover… I worshipped everything he did forever: when I started rock nyc I was all about Kanye, Conor, and Patrick Stickles. And of the three, Conor man, he had just released his Conor Oberst album, and had “I Got The Reason” in his back pocket, and I’d caught him at Other Music and then made a trip to Connecticut to catch the full set and spent the night there, because I didn’t fancy the free gig at Battery Park and even met him at the hotel we were both staying at.
And then slowly, agonizingly, he fell apart. Outer South, despite “Nicorette”, was a complete botch, even the magnificent “I Got The Reason” was poorly recorded. And after that, a dreadful Monsters Of Folk gig at United Palace (though his songs on the album absolutely saved it), the dreadful Bright Eyes swan song and a poor showing at Radio City Music Hall, and it was like a snowball effect: an excellent set at Carnegie Hall which he sat through, was followed with false claims that hurt his reputation, a hideous Rolling Stone interview where he insulted his teenage girl fans, the DOA Upside Down Mountain, an awful Summerstage gig that might not have been entirely his fault as the rude and restive audience at an outdoor gig spoke and drank right through it, the Desaparecidos tour that ended with Conor in hospital in Omaha (sound familiar? not really, he had to have an operation for a cyst on his brain) and finally the dreary Ruminations. And last night, over to Carnegie Hall again.
Yeah, spurned lover, but I went back because that’s what what spurned lovers do: I’m not over Conor, though I mostly expected hell on earth. I’d checked out the setlist. The evening was broken in two, three actually. The first set was Omaha’s legendary singer songwriter Simon Joyner, the second set Ruminations in its entirety, and the final third was seven oldies plus a Leonard Cohen cover. Dubbed “An Intimate Solo Performance with Conor Oberst”, it was Conor on guitar, harp and piano, joined by bass playing indie performer MiWi La Lupa, I think he said a trombonist named Lynn on two songs, a guitar tech by the side of the stage and Simon joined him for the Cohen cover.
Simon Joyner is a well respected folkie who I’ve never heard before and who played his songs at the same tempo and in the same key for 40 minutes straight. I thought he was sublimely boring, however, if I knew his material my feelings might have been very different. At the recommendation of Omaha’s favorite son Matt Whipkey, I listened to his 2015’s Grass, Branch And Bone, and was impressed and would have been more so if I gave it some time. A highlight of his set was “Old Days” off the album, and better still was the post-Election “I’m Feeling It Today” which joins Pussy Riot’s “Make America Great Again” and YG’s “FDT” as a threesome of truly terrific protest songs for the new regime.
Still, I was bored and awaited with a sense of dread for at least the Ruminations set and I guess my expectations have never been lower for a Conor gig and this was the best I’ve heard him since, I dunno, the Toad’s Place gig if not the earlier Town Hall concert in 2007. He played seven nights at Town Hall and I only went to one but if I could go back in time I’d see em all. Ruminations is too brutal to be great, too down to be up, and sometimes too fucking thick to be important: if you’re gonna start namechecking Christopher Hitchens, Sylvia Plath , and “poor” Robin Williams in the same song, you’re not gonna make it with anyone, anyhow. But moving from piano to guitar and back, and in strong voice throughout, he sold me on songs I don’t much like. “A Little Uncanny”‘s hook worked better live, “Tachycardia”, despite the worst opening line for an album ever, was a thriller, the harp on “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)” saves it. “Barbary Coast (Later)” was a turn around for me, the “i don’t wanna appear needy…” is a terrific hook and at least the death is peaceful this time. And the only one I loved on the album from the start, “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out,” is a memory song and what he is remembering is the New York City of 2001. Also, the song refers to the Irish pub on St. Mark’s Place, so now we know.
The second set was highlighted by Cohen’s “Passing Through”, introduced by Conor admitting he cried on election night (“I’m a pussy, come and grab me”) and then when he thought he had no more tears learnt Leonard Cohen had died and spent more tears. “Passing Through” was very apt and a great singalong. “Cape Canaveral” performed earlier is his greatest poetic achievement, and “Lua” the sexiest song he was ever written and while a friend of mine thought he sang it too fast, I thought it was a thing of endless wonder. It is a pity Oberst never broke big time pop, he has a voice for arenas: you know the hushed roar which adds depth to anything he sings. Conor is a gloomy gus, though he really has everything going for him, he isn’t much fun. Serious to the place where self-indulgence meets self-importance, self-pitying beyond belief (“I have no friends” he lied, before dedicating a song to his wife Corinna, who was in the audience along with his New York buddies). But there is an excitement to his performances, a gravitas to go along with his dark pretty boyishness.
Look, if he can sell me on “The Rain Follows The Plow”, he can do anything, can’t he? If you want to ask Conor himself, here is his phone number 402 915 2006… oh, and Creem’s always very own Jaan Uhelszki wrote the Carnegie Hall Playbill notes for the show.