NEW YORK, NY—“I’ll be holding my note and stomping / And strumming and feeling so very lucky,” sang beloved millennial bard Conor Oberst during the first song of the set, his voice echoing in cavernous Carnegie Hall. Oberst’s lyrics always feel relevant is his greatest trait, but on this night, Thanksgiving Eve, those particular lines held especially true.
I was thankful just to be there. After scoring tickets to the sold out show, I almost didn’t make it thanks to an hour-long train delay. When I finally power walked into Carnegie Hall at 8:30 p.m., marching up endless flights of stairs to my seat in the uppermost balcony, I thought of a relevant Oberst lyric: “You told me victory’s sweet, even deep in the cheap seats.” (I smiled when Conor sang it later in the set, and several fellow nosebleed seat dwellers cheered.) The opener, Ian Felice, was still playing but ended shortly after I settled into my velvet-trimmed seat. Felice’s voice sounds like a soothing, lullaby-friendly version of young Bob Dylan’s. His quiet, serious tone cast an introspective mood in the hall. It lingered in the few minutes between his exit and Oberst’s entrance.
Oberst appeared suddenly in the spotlight, several minutes early, dressed in a navy suit. He strode through a stage door and sat down in a chair—where he remained for the entire show except for a few trips to the piano—picked up his acoustic guitar and dove right into “The Big Picture.” The cheering audience immediately fell silent and listened intently. From my vantage point, Oberst looked miniscule on the huge stage, huddled in the center of a small horseshoe of instruments and equipment. But his wavering croon rang loud and clear. That voice, an old friend to those of us who did most of our growing up in the 2000s, greeted the audience with its resonating rawness.
If you’re wondering, as I did, what a Conor Oberst show in 2012 entails, here’s a rundown: Bright Eyes songs with a side of solo Conor, a dash of new material, and a bonus Monsters Of Folk tune. The setlist was seamless. He transitioned gracefully between songs, often introducing them with little comments. “Some things get better with age, and this song is one of them,” he said of the 2007 Cassadaga song “Classic Cars” before harmonizing with singer Rachel Cox. He pointed out a few other songs as “old ones,” like “First Day Of My Life,” the second song of the night. The older strongholds were as deeply affecting as they’ve always been, but he also played two equally stellar new songs. Called “Common Knowledge” and “You Are Your Mother’s Child,” they contained the key elements of a great Conor Oberst piece: intelligent observations rendered in clever, beautiful poetry.
A handful of musicians joined Oberst on stage throughout the night, enhancing the songs perfectly but keeping the focus on the singer and his voice. A xylophone player-turned-guitarist added necessary eeriness to “Lenders In The Temple,” and, in one of the best moments of the evening, a trumpeter nailed the solo in “Landlocked Blues.” Ian Felice—who Oberst couldn’t stop praising—played fiddle alongside his brother, an accordionist, and the rest of the group on standout versions of “Ten Women,” “Lua,” and “Make War.”
My favorite thing about Oberst’s singing is that he always sounds like he’s on the verge of either an emotional breakthrough or an emotional breakdown. He puts up no façade. Seeing him at Carnegie Hall was a treat in this regard, because the formality of the venue meant that the crowd was almost entirely silent as he played. Every nuance of his voice—the feelings driving it, his enunciation of the words, his variance between yelling and talking—became an incredibly intimate dialogue with the listeners. The audience, in turn, became a little shy. When Oberst shouted, “Everybody!” at the end of “Laura Laurent,” hardly anyone sang along until he repeated his request. Maybe we were worried he could hear us just as well as we could hear him.