Tonight, Conor Oberst returns to the stage of the Bord Gais Theatre, his first time on these shores since Longitude 2014. Oberst has been through the wars these last few years, a sexual assault accusation, cancelled tour dates, and hospitalisation from anxiety and exhaustion. His name was cleared after the release of 2014’s Upside Down Mountain, but as is often the case the initial noise of the accusation outweighed the retraction, and some news outlets that were loud in the coverage of the story, whispered the news of the eventual outcome. The noisy angry album Payola with side project Desaparecidos came after in 2015, but in a way new album Ruminations could be viewed as a response to that whole period, it certainly sounds as if it is at times. Composed alone on piano, guitar and harmonica, it’s his most Dylanesque to date. Recorded over a 48hr period while exiled at home in Omaha, to hear it performed tonight as it was written is a real treat.
He opens the set with new tracks ‘Tachycardia’ and ‘Gossamer Thin’, the latter one of the high points of the new album. The set rests heavily on the new material, but the night is littered with music from throughout his career, such as his self-titled 2008 album and numbers from the Mystic Valley Band.
The effects of the difficult aforementioned years are apparent on ‘You Loved Him Once’, where the hurt is palpable. Listening here feels positively evasive, like you’re peering in a window you shouldn’t, or eavesdropping on some kind of confessional, too enthralled to pull away. Trump is mentioned; Oberst like most Americans currently out on the road is not a fan. That the artist feels the need to apologise is understandable. These are fictitious, or “slightly fucked up” times we are living in. Although doubtful Reagan’s “tan” came from the same tube as Donald’s, the lyrics of ‘A Little Uncanny’ are powerfully resonant, and those country club attendees have voted in another celebrity president, a depressing case of history repeating itself. ‘Ladder Song’ follows. The first of a few Bright Eyes numbers we will hear. Tonight it too sounds like it could be addressing America’s woes, “Don’t hang around when once the promise breaks…kiss the feet of a charlatan”. That’s followed by ‘Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out’, and several other tracks from last year’s Ruminations. Mamah Borthwick, which alludes to the album’s title “a rumination in my mind. Winding like the ramp at the Guggenheim”, the harrowingly bleak, ‘Counting Sheep’, and an exquisite ‘The Rain Follows the Plow’. It’s difficult to not be reminded of Dylan, the use of harmonica and lyrical content almost demand it, but the piano sets it apart, it is sombre and fragile, but often uplifting
The Bord Gais Theatre is a large space, but tonight remains intimate, whether in the front row or up in the rafters, the atmosphere is wholly immersive. It feels as if he’s playing to just a select few. One of the guests on the forthcoming Salutations is Felice Brothers drummer Jim Keltner, and when he’s not delving into his own back catalogue, he’s treating us to a rendition of that band’s ‘Jack at the Asylum’. The beautifully voiced Phoebe Bridgers returns to the stage after her impressive opening slot tonight to accompany him. She stays on for a bewitching version of Bright Eyes’ ‘Lua’, an audible highlight for a lot of people here tonight. This segue ways into what becomes a triple bill of Bright Eyes tracks that bring the night to a close. Bridgers voice is the perfect complement to his, tonight they are Gram and Emmylou, and the audience is treated to some pristine harmonising.
The tracks on Ruminations don’t feel as lonely and desolate when played here among this crowd. They are delicate, and he commands the quiet attention of this captive audience with ease, but they are also stirring, and at times inspirational. Oberst is a charismatic and changeable songwriter, and his closing numbers are in conflict with the earlier quieter moments. He finishes with an impassioned rendering of ‘The Big Picture’, and a boisterous ‘At the Bottom of Everything’. The crowd are on their feet in rapturous applause as the show draws to a rowdy and enthusiastic close.
Known for his prolific output, the release of companion album Salutations on March 17th is impressive even by his standards. The album will feature seven new works, and reimagined versions of all ten tracks from Ruminations. When Oberst tours Salutations, he will be going out with the Felice Brothers as his backing band; hopefully he’ll swing back this way again.