Conor Oberst in Top Form at ACL Live

If I’m honest: happy people bother me a little. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about focus on the positives to keep yourself from spiraling headlong into depression. But it does seem like if you are your usual peppy self each new morning that dawns in this present era, you may not be paying attention. While songwriter Conor Oberst has, on more than one occasion, indulged his own self-loathing and self-pity, he is also one of a few songwriters who has continued to direct his angst and deep sorrow at government leaders, state institutions, and social structures. Look, no one benefits from aimless complaining, but it’s also nice to see someone else is not fine. For the last decade and a half, Oberst has occupied that place of visibility for music fans, and that, maybe ironically, makes me happy.

On his newest album, Salutations, Oberst added full arrangements to some of his best songs in recent memory, which were initially released in sparse, solo versions on his preceding effort, Ruminations. Last Friday night, he brought that full band arrangement, supplied by indie folk troubadours The Felice Brothers, to the Moody Theater at ACL Live. The evening’s performance provided musically immaculate renditions of songs that capture the messiness of our human condition.

The setlist consisted of an assortment of tracks from across his solo discography, and a few from his work under the Bright Eyes moniker, including “Poison Oak” and “Train Under Water.” One of the night’s most magnetic moments came when Oberst performed a gorgeous version of “Lua” as a duet with opening act Phoebe Bridgers, who sang transcendently. The entire set benefitted from the musical prowess of the members of the Felice Brothers playing organ, fiddle, and accordion, in addition to the traditional bass, guitar, and drums. During the encore, Oberst played an unreleased song rife with nihilism, promising that no one ever changes and spouting melodramatic and personal lines about a generally bleak, jaded outlook in impeccably rendered poetic lines of rhythmic genuis. Oberst commented on the sad state of affairs in the world today and instructed audience members to take care of each other, but didn’t hesitate to joke (?) that the reason for the show was to sell copies of his newly released album.

Julien Baker performed before Oberst, belting out emotive lyrics over delicate guitar pop songs. She continues to nab spots on major festival lineups and in support of notable headliners in an ascent to national renown. Hearing her voice live demonstrates the reasons why. The aforementioned Phoebe Bridgers opened the night playing somber folk songs and bantering with impressive relaxed affability between numbers. Though somewhat understated, Bridgers’ songs possess a transfixing tension. Although I hadn’t previously heard her music, she has my attention now.

All photos © Bryan C. Parker & Pop Press International; click any image to open the set in slideshow viewer.

About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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