Like any good rock music wonder kid, Conor Oberst likes to write songs… lots of them. When you plunge into touring with such a substantial catalogue to choose from, boasting grand-scale, career-spanning performances to your adoring public, it becomes damn near impossible to please everyone. With that said, Saturday’s tour-opening performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl was – at least – a glorious musical romp in the rain. Sure, the weather was a little chilly, (read: painfully numb and laughably soggy) and perhaps new material did outweigh the old, (read: selections from the past three albums dominated the evening) but Mr. Oberst and his current band of buddies managed to keep the crowd attentive – and surprisingly cheerful – throughout their hour and a half long stint onstage.
Lauded by many as music’s youngest manic-depressive, Oberst chose to play a delightful game of point-counterpoint with the less-than-spectacular weather conditions. Using sunny ditties like show-opener “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Lua” to juxtapose the biting cold, the band successfully warmed the crowd up (pun intended) while temporarily sloughing off their somber reputation. Fresh off his summer-spanning Digital Ash tour, Oberst was adamant about holding tight to his newfound electronic edginess. Cuts off the record “Gold Mine Gutted” and “Hit the Switch” worked nicely against new tunes such as “Who Would Write It for Less” and the numerous cuts from Lifted… “False Advertising” and “Bowl of Oranges.” Perhaps it was best that the crowd peaked at far below house capacity, because somewhere between the harp solo and the fleeting drizzle Oberst’s stage presence became as intimate as his lyricism.
Customarily prone to thanking his audience with the hushed voice of someone less-than-thrilled to be standing in front of thousands, the evening found young Conor animated to near-giddiness as he launched into old favorites like “Falling Out Of Love At This Volume” (which he wrote at the age of 15) and “Kathy With A K’s Song.” Backed by an impressive slew of instrumentation – tandem drummers, clarinetists and a keyboardist/trumpeter to boot – and yielding a set list that did its best to cover all the bases, Oberst seemed to slowly be growing into his celebrity.
Ill-equipped both socially and vocally to be the next McCartney or Springsteen, his stage presence still left little to be desired by the close of Saturday’s set. The haphazard beats and frantic wails that made up the encore-ending “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” seemed to solidify Conor as an artist peering into the gorge of greatness. Though he may not yet be content to bear the weight of titles, or lofty comparisons, there is little doubt that a couple more damply earnest performances could position Oberst as our generation’s next great American singer-songwriter.
Not to be overlooked, show openers Sons & Daughters did a stupendous job of working with what they had. Surrounded by a lot of umbrella-yielding concertgoers, the quartet from Scotland strutted their way through an impressive thirty-minute-plus set that included the frenetic “Medicine” and the rockabilly-tinged tribute “Johnny Cash.” The call-and-response harmonies of vocalists/guitarists Adele Bethel and Scott Paterson, coupled with their collective flair for all that is well-dressed, forced one to make the obvious (yet worthy) comparison to the Kills, but Sons & Daughters put on a stage show that was all their own. Rounding out their set with a healthy dose of red wine, synth-beats and banjo-plucking goodness, the Celtic rockers had nothing but praise for the man that is Bright Eyes before skirting off the stage thankfully.