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Conor Oberst as himself with The Mystic Valley Band

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Concert Review

My husband, to whom I introduced Bright Eyes a few years ago and, more recently, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, said that his “pivotal moment” at the recent Conor Oberst and MVB concert at Terminal 5 in NYC was when he looked over the shoulder of the “girl” standing beside us and read her text message which declared, “Conor Oberst is a new man with The Mystic Valley Band – he’s been totally reborn.”

My sister, Amma, who, in fact, introduced me to Bright Eyes a few years ago and, more recently, to the Conor Oberst and MVB cd, agreed with the “girl” in a more subdued expressiveness… “He seems happier,” she noted several times, and pointed out that he was, indeed, dancing more than during his previous concerts. 

The music from Conor’s latest fete, which he recorded in Mexico, is, certainly, Enchanting. Those who might know the heart of Mexico, as I do, know that Mexico itself is Enchanted. Mexico embodies the struggle and the profound ease of being alive, and it seems that Conor, while he never had much difficulty expressing the trouble, has found a new corner of his own heart that one might, in fact, just call… happiness.

My sister notes that “he is more relaxed and loose… forgiving, and the songs reflect that, too.” Listening to the album, his first “solo” album in thirteen years, one can hear the difference roll from his tongue, but to see the stage and Conor giving a song to the drummer, Jason Boesel, to lead the singing and to have the guitarist, Macey Taylor, joining in the vocals, and to see the projection of what FEELS like his newfound empathy for the rest of the world, to hear his lyrics which point to other peoples’ wisdom, we understand that Conor, as my sister notes, “has gone through some cathartic experience.” 

We speculate in what that is, for we, of course, who love Conor’s music and eyes, bright and dimmed, and, even, often dark heart, believe we understand and have insight into his change or growth or “reborn” man. He is not doing interviews this tour, and while I found this disappointing, my sister found the goodness again, and said that it made sense. He isn’t making this (tour / album) about the recognition and market stance, and what is is and what will be will be and on and on… and on. In the past, he’s always seemed to like discord, though always controlled it very well. 

Taylor Hollingsworth, guitar, Nik Freitas, guitar, and Nate Walcott, keyboards are the remaining members of MVB.

The show opened bravely, with a song that has not been recorded (or yet distributed en mass), and the audience stood silently, trusting and accepting, but, perhaps, disappointed that they could not sing out something familiar in their new found hope and wisdom passed on from Conor and, thus, back to us. The second song was the well-loved “Sausaulito,” the second track on the new cd, an upbeat song about possibility amidst “bills to pay.” By the third song, “Get Well Card,” which has a loving and passionate rawness to its opening and its chorus:

“Right there that’s the postman sleeping in the sand... he’s got a (my) letter to deliver, but I can’t stay mad…”

was sung out by almost all two-thousand in the room, with Conor leading, as he seemed to encourage us in our own, unselfconscious off-key harmony. As the song suggests, Conor might have learned to let go of his control, and, for the moment, it seemed to be about unity, collaboration, as my sister put it, a looseness and willingness to “get out of himself and into others.”

During the encore, Conor told a story about when he had first come to New York City, for the same reason most New Yorkers come to New York City, “for a life they didn’t have where they were,” and he said how he had met this musician who was all into peace, Ben Kweller, and Ben – who had opened for Conor – came out. They hugged and kissed and then played Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” together. It was, I dare say, all love.

Conor followed this with “I Don’t Wanna Die in the Hospital,” a song written in the first person about someone who definitely doesn’t want to die in the hospital. A resounding joy through the angst of the subject in its quick-tempo, good humor, and matter-of-fact honesty. My other sister, Tori, who came along to the concert to share the magic with her sisters, (Amma lives in another state, and Tori sometimes lives in another country, and I, often, live somewhere else, so reunions are not frequent), and was not yet familiar with the new cd so experienced the music with virgin ears, as Conor danced around the stage – though Amma and I mistakenly told her this was written for his grandfather (it turns out he said in an interview with Rolling Stone (who voted Conor best songwriter of 2008)  that it was written for a friend of his, who at seventy-five, made Conor promise that if he ever wound up in the hospital that Conor would not let him die there) – said to me that this song was worth the whole concert.  The echoing truth in the mortality of it all got to her with the simplicity of “help me get my boots on, help me get my boots on, help me get my boots back on…”

And for Conor’s last song, he dedicated the tune and moment to a little Lilly – I think was the name he said – a newborn brought into the world “on the day Obama became president – a great day to be born! An Obama baby!”

Conor was soft and strong, he danced and sat, and kept his hat on until the end of the show. The hat seemed a way to mask his eyes from a direct line into his soul. Perhaps he felt too raw, open, untended as his tongue embraced us all in his search for a throughline between himself and the universe.

For one thing I did notice that had changed in the lyrics, which I had noted to self before the concert, was that his lyrics now began with the personal and then crossed into the universal or wisdom of other or collective in the majority of the songs. With Bright Eyes, Conor’s lyrics were definitely more about the personal, or at least written in the first person and had the distinct feeling that they were his personal point of view. These lyrics, like the concert, seemed to have opened Conor to his love song.

Before song number nine, he said “We’ve been on the road so long that you don’t really go home, but this is one of the few places (New York City) that feels like that. This is a love song, none the less.” Then he sang, “Danny Callahan,” which begins asking for proof, “… there’s no system, there’s no guarantees that the love you feel we carry inside can be passed…”

And ends with… “what gauge measures miracles, what heart beats electrical, we feign sickness with our modern joy, even western medicine, it couldn’t save Danny Callahan, bad bone marrow, a bald little boy, but the love he feels he carries inside can be passed, he layed there, his mother kissed him goodbye, said, ‘come back, where are you going so alone, “where are you going all alone…”

I would say, Conor has opened up. Maybe even “a new man.” 

And he’s certainly not alone.

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[PHOTOS BY DAVID J. SMITH]
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