On The Scene: Conor Oberst and Dawes in Central Park, NYC

posted by Joshua Johnson on July 30, 2014

By Robert Altman/Polaris via Under The Radar Mag

New York City -- In support of his latest solo album, Upside Down Mountain, Conor Oberst played a career-spanning set last night at the Central Park SummerStage. Backed by folk-rockers Dawes, who also served as the night’s opening band, Oberst ran through most of his folksy new record, as well as a number of Bright Eyes songs and a few tracks from his days with The Mystic Valley Band.  

Oberst is an incredibly engaging frontman, so the makeup of his backup band isn’t exactly a make or break detail. However, to their credit, the gentlemen of Dawes meshed excellently with their temporary frontman’s catalog. Along with a mandolin and a steel lap guitar courtesy of Megan and Rebecca Lovell, Dawes brought the folk for songs like “Time Forgot” and “Zigzagging Toward the Light,” but they also brought the rock for songs like “Firewall” and “Lover I Don’t Have To Love,” giving them a sharper edge absent from their studio counterparts. Throughout the show, the band’s instrumentation was top-notch. A single drumbeat in the middle of “Artifact #1” elevated the whole song past its recorded version. 

As great as Dawes was, Oberst was the main star of the show, and the man knows how to deliver. Alternating between his low-key singing style and his signature Conor Oberst shouting, he ripped through a fantastic two-hour set. In between songs, he would occasionally tell a short anecdote about the upcoming song’s origin. Before playing “Governor’s Ball” (not to be confused with Governors Ball), Oberst told the crowd how he had spent the last few months in Europe playing “muddy fields in the middle of nowhere,” and that he was about to play “a song about a music festival.” He also gave a shout-out to those who got arrested while protesting the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC before launching into a particularly ferocious rendition of “Old Soul Song (For The New World Order).” 

Oberst also dedicated the song “Hit The Switch” to his old Saddle Creek Records label mate Jenny Lewis, whose (excellent) album The Voyager came out yesterday. In the midst of his dedication, he mentioned that Lewis was in the building (er, park), raising the hopes of many audience members, very much including myself, that she would come out on stage for a song or two. Unfortunately, she never made an appearance, so my dream of seeing Conor Oberst and Jenny Lewis sing “First Day of My Life” together remains just that. Though that might be for the best, since if that did happen, I wouldn’t have been able to write this, as I would have become a puddle.

Other highlights included the bouncy “Bowl of Oranges,” the dark “No One Would Riot For Less,” and the energetic, jam-filled closer “I Got A Reason.” After “I Got A Reason,” Oberst and his band came back for an all I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning encore. They performed a poignant rendition of the already quite poignant “Lua” before closing the night for good with the rambunctious “Another Travelin’ Song.”

Oberst’s music was perfect for the outdoor setting. The alternating folk and rock songs already make great outdoor fare, and Oberst is more than capable of pulling out a chills-down-the-spine moment - a must for any festival band. You can catch him at several more festivals this summer, including Oya, Way Out West, Haldern Pop Festival, Frequency Festival, and Mojotic Festival.

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