An honest truth: The Evolution of Conor Oberst

Conor Oberst at The Fox Theater in Oakland on May 12.

Conor Oberst is a beautiful storyteller.

I was 16 when I first saw him play at San Francisco’s Bottom of the Hill. He was the frontman of Desaparecidos, a punk/hardcore-tinged band that I worshiped. I listened to Read Music/Speak Spanish until my favorite tracks were too scratched to play on my Discman.

I remember how excited I was to watch the chaos unfold that night. Kids throwing their heads back and clenching their fists, pulling their hoodies into their knees, circling around me as I stood stoically in the center of the room. The music validated a lot of my feelings, especially anger, and I longed for the acceptance I felt when I listened to it.

“What you learned, what you read in their books

All they offered

What you saw when they told you to look

A final offer

Well, today we are giving birth

To a new future

Yeah, today we are giving birth

To our own future,” — Mañana, Desaparecidos

Conor Oberst at Bottom of the Hill in 2002.

But to my surprise, the band broke up and Conor came alone. There I was, sitting on a speaker, close enough to touch him, in an old house-turned venue. Sitting on a wooden stool with an acoustic guitar resting on his knee, he shared a bottle of red wine with the tiny crowd and sang tracks from Fevers and Mirrors (my favorite), Letting Off the Happiness, Every Day and Every Night and A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995–1997.

It was 2002, I was a teenager, and I had just fallen in love for the first time. I was a straight-A, anxious student who constantly felt alone, angry and different. I hid from the world in records that brought me relief.

I still do.

It’s why I’ve always been drawn to Conor’s writing. It’s honest. And I can relate.

“I have a friend, he’s mostly made of pain

He wakes up, drives to work and straight back home again

He once cut one of my nightmares out of paper

I thought it was beautiful, I put it on a record cover

And I tried to tell him he had a sense

Of color and composition so magnificent

And he said, “Thank you, please

But your flattery

It’s truly not becoming me

Your eyes are poor, you’re blind you see

No beauty could have come from me

I’m a waste

Of breath, of space, of time.” — Waste of Paint, Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground

Now I’m 32 and I’ve seen Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes more times than I can count. But I go back because he shares his truth with me. Sometimes it’s sad, sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s nostalgic. But every time it’s real. It’s revitalizing in a world where we all struggle to connect.

It’s what I was looking for last week at The Fox Theater in Oakland. He was backed by The Felice Brothers and joined on stage by opener and pal Phoebe Bridgers. He selected most songs from his two recent releases, Salutations and Ruminations, but as always, he played a handful of Bright Eyes favorites, mainly from I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.

Joined by Bridgers, the crowd settled to a silence and swayed along to “Lua.” It was the most touching moment of the night.

“I’ve got a flask inside my pocket we can share it on the train

If you promise to stay conscious I will try and do the same

We might die from medication, but we sure killed all the pain

But what was normal in the evening, by the morning seems insane.” — Lua, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

It made me miss the old stuff, tracks that make your skin warm when you close your eyes. I wanted to scream, “A Perfect Sonnet! For fuck’s sake, play it!” But I knew I wouldn’t hear it, or anything off Every Day and Every Night, Fevers and Mirrors or Lifted.

I saw Bright Eye’s final official set at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in 2011. It’s the last time I heard “The Calendar Hung Itself” or “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.” I danced on a dirt hill in Golden Gate Park as Oberst thrust himself from piano to guitar, sometimes jumping on the bass drum, singing opposite the crowd. I felt lucky to have been there.

I also saw him back in October. It was Hardly Strictly weekend and everyone was in town. Jim James opened with one of the most hypnotic sets I’ve ever seen and later joined his pals Conor and M. Ward for an impromptu Monsters of Folk reunion. They partied hard, played for fun and everyone inside The Fillmore could feel it. Just like my first show, it was genuine, unique and unforgettable.

Though this wasn’t my favorite Conor show, he did touch a nostalgic cord Friday night when he opened his encore with a new, untitled track:

“But I don’t want to be so jaded.

Getting’ a plan to work things out

When I’m alone you’re all I think about

But I’m never alone . . . very long . . .

No one is gonna change, nobody ever does

No one is gonna change, nobody is changing for you

No one is gonna change, nobody ever does

And I’m never gonna do what you want me to.” — untitled

Maybe one day he’ll surprise me by playing “Sunrise, Sunset” or “First Day of My Life.” Either way, I’ll show up every time because he shows up for me, with transparency and beauty. Enough to warm my little, black heart.

Set List:

Afterthought

Four Winds (Bright Eyes)

Time Forgot

Too Late to Fixate

Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out

Eagle on a Pole

Barbary Coast (Later)

Well Whiskey (Bright Eyes)

Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)

Anytime Soon/Overdue

Map of the World (Monsters of Folk)

Lua (Bright Eyes song with Phoebe Bridgers)

Jack at the Asylum (The Felice Brothers cover)

Salutations

Artifact #1

Poison Oak (Bright Eyes)

A Little Uncanny

Encore:

New Untitled Track

Train Under Water (Bright Eyes)

Napalm